- The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on Monday announced two proposed rules focused on coal-fired generation and the combustion residuals it creates, angering environmental advocates who say the move will allow for more pollution and slower waste cleanups.
- One proposed rule would alter utilities' deadline to close unlined coal ash impoundments or those close to aquifers. The new rule would give utilities until Aug. 31, 2020, to stop placing waste into the ponds, and either retrofit them or begin closure.
- A second proposal would revise 2015 rules covering coal plant wastewater management, known as effluent guidelines, to extend compliance deadlines by two years and relax some pollution limits. EPA said its voluntary incentives program would help to address flue gas desulfurization (FGD) wastewater.
President Trump has not been able to slow the methodical closings of coal-fired power plants, but his administration is working to make life easier for those that remain.
"Today's proposed actions were triggered by court rulings and petitions for reconsideration on two 2015 rules that placed heavy burdens on electricity producers across the country," EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said in a statement.
Obama era coal rules had required leaking coal ash ponds to close by April 2019, but the Trump administration adjusted that until October 2020. The new proposed rule would move that deadline up to August, but environmental groups say the rules also allow for alternatives and additional time.
EPA proposed both rules simultaneously "in order to provide more certainty," Wheeler said. The proposals reflect the Trump administration's "commitment to responsible, reasonable regulations by taking a commonsense approach, which also protects public health and the environment," he added.
Environmental groups have a different view.
The Natural Resources Defense Council said the changes would allow plants to "dump more toxic substances into waterways and companies to keep open unlined, hazardous coal ash ponds" through relaxed pollution limits and extended deadlines.
Allowing coal ash ponds to remain open "risks causing serious harm to public health, particularly in low-income communities and communities of color," Becky Hammer, NRDC deputy director of federal water policy, said in a statement.
Coal ash has a number of toxic metals including mercury, arsenic, lead and selenium, which have been linked to neurological disorders, cardiovascular disease and increased risk of cancer. Some 470 electric utilities with coal-fired power plants generated about 110 million tons of coal ash in 2012, making it one of the country's largest industrial waste streams, according to the EPA.
The Edison Electric Institute, which represents investor-owned utilities, said it "appreciates the process" the EPA is undertaking to "reevaluate the technical requirements imposed on steam electric power generation facilities."
EPA will take comment on both proposals through two concurrent 60-day public comment periods, with one virtual public hearing held for each rule. The agency says the changes to effluent guidelines will save more than $175 million pre-tax annually.
"We applaud the Trump EPA's latest efforts to protect coal mining and the livelihoods of those who depend on its success," West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey said in a statement. "The proposed regulations will improve the regulatory burden on the coal industry and lower the cost of electricity for West Virginians."