EPA grants coal ash-polluters’ request to rethink community protections

EPA recently agreed to consider a utility request to undo key protections that safeguard communities and the environment from coal ash pollution. (© Gerry Broome)

Just before a deadline to make utilities’ groundwater monitoring results public, the Environmental Protection Agency sided with utilities and granted their request to reconsider key provisions protecting people and the environment from their coal ash pollution. Among the utilities seeking these rollbacks are Duke Energy—with 18 guilty pleas to Clean Water Act coal ash crimes in North Carolina—and the Tennessee Valley Authority—the utility known for the largest coal ash spill in American history. The utilities targeted the federal Coal Combustion Residuals rule, which requires safer handling of dangerous coal ash, including at several unlined, leaking pits next to rivers and lakes upstream of many communities across the South. SELC is representing citizen groups in court fighting to protect clean water from the utilities’ coal ash pollution.

“Today’s action is the latest example of utilities acting irresponsibly in handling their dangerous toxic-laden coal ash,” said Senior Attorney Frank Holleman. “For decades, these utilities dumped their coal ash in unlined, leaking pits that are contaminating our drinking water sources and poisoning our groundwater. In doing the bidding of these coal ash polluters, this administration threatens harm to families and communities throughout the South.”

This week, the Trump administration’s EPA granted a petition filed by coal ash polluters seeking to weaken the rule’s requirements for safer handling of coal ash and separating it from groundwater. The requirements are self-implemented by the utilities and enforceable by citizens. The utilities cited three recent executive orders by President Donald Trump in their petition and asked that, rather than follow the coal ash law, this administration allow them to:

  • Simply cover up their toxic coal ash in unlined, leaking pits next to rivers and lakes upstream of communities and frequently sitting several feet in groundwater;
  • Dump more of their toxic coal ash into these unlined, leaking pits before covering them up;
  • Do away with standards that are protective of health or life;
  • Create their own license to pollute groundwater in excess of established limits already determined to be needed to protect people’s health and life;
  • Delay deadlines for groundwater contamination monitoring that were to be made public by October 18 under the rule;
  • Continue operating unlined, leaking coal ash pits after they are contaminating groundwater, which can migrate and last for centuries;
  • Abandon minimum national standards for construction of liners to contain the toxic waste;
  • Dump coal ash into abandoned clay mines without lining them and classify it as “beneficial reuse;”
  • Make up boundaries other than the edge of the coal ash site for measuring compliance; and
  • Avoid responsibility for decades of their toxic pollution of our waterways and groundwater by not applying the rule to their oldest and failing unlined, leaking pits—frequently full of coal ash—that they no longer use.

“Lobbyists for powerful utilities ran to D.C. to stop people and communities across the South who are trying to protect their families and drinking water sources from continued coal ash pollution by powerful utilities,” Holleman said. “These powerful coal ash polluters are seeking to get rid of simple requirements that utilities should be following to protect the families and communities that they serve, as well as their own shareholders and ratepayers. Instead, the polluters' petition puts families, entire communities, and the utilities themselves at serious risk by seeking to continue utilities’ toxic legacy of coal ash pollution unchecked.”

The urgent need for this national rule was first underscored by TVA’s mishandling of its coal ash, which resulted in a wall of toxic slurry slamming through people's homes and contaminating the Emory River just before Christmas 2008 in Tennessee.

Duke Energy’s mishandling of its coal ash later led to a spill contaminating the Dan River and its companies pleaded guilty 18 times to nine Clean Water Act crimes for its coal ash pollution at sites across North Carolina. Duke Energy is still on criminal probation. Communities near Duke Energy coal ash sites in North Carolina have been impacted by encroaching plumes of groundwater contamination, selenium contamination linked to fish deformations and fish kills in lakes, contamination of drinking water wells, and spikes of carcinogens in downstream treated drinking water.

In South Carolina, where utilities are removing their ash to safer dry lined storage out of groundwater and away from waterways or recycling it, levels of arsenic in surrounding waters have dropped dramatically. Recycling coal ash has led to a new facility and job-creation for the local community in addition to clean water for businesses and families.

“The last two hurricane seasons have reminded everyone that it's irresponsible to store millions of tons of coal ash in unlined pits next to the rivers of the South,” said Holleman, “Not only do these utility coal ash pits leak and pollute, they are disasters waiting to happen every time there's a major storm or flood. The communities of the South need all the protections of the existing coal ash rule to help them clean up the coal ash messes that utilities have created.”

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