News | April 17, 2018

SELC op-ed: New federal coal ash regulations designed for polluters

Senior Attorney Frank Holleman parses the myriad problems with the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposal to undermine the national coal ash rule in a recent Newsweek article. The draft proposal, which weakens important protections established to safeguard clean water and communities against coal ash pollution, are out for public comment until April 30. You can submit your comments here.

Below is an excerpt of Holleman’s Newsweek article. Read the entire piece here.

…Coal-burning utilities are some of the nation’s richest institutions and wield tremendous political influence in the states where they operate. In the Southeast, they are politically-created monopolies that have a lock on the sale of electricity, the most important part of our economies. And they have more engineering expertise than almost any other segment of the economy.

Yet utilities have chosen the most primitive and irresponsible way to store coal ash. Burning coal produces no waste water, only dry ash. Utilities could have easily trucked their ash uphill away from rivers, lakes, and drinking water reservoirs to safe, dry, lined disposal.

However, just to make things easier for themselves and save some marginal dollars, they chose to create some of the country’s most dangerous wastewater by sucking water out of an adjacent river or lake and flushing their coal ash downhill into large earthen pits that they dug next to the waterbody itself.

Instead of building secure concrete dams and lined pits to contain their contamination, they left pits unlined and built only earthen dikes to separate their ash lagoons from our rivers and lakes. Today, these pits are decades old and become more dangerous every day.

…The Trump administration’s embrace of coal ash is especially surprising because in our region, we have seen communities that express support for President Trump also demand greater protections from coal ash. Here in the South, no communities have ever asked for fewer protections from coal ash pollution.

So what is the explanation? The D.C. trade associations and lobbyists that represent powerful fossil-fuel polluters are pushing these changes, and the Trump administration and its EPA are dancing to their tune. Utility trade associations asked Pruitt to change these rules; the heads of coal-burning utilities met personally with Pruitt; and coal-burning utilities and petroleum pipelines are looking for help in Washington because they have been facing, and often losing, enforcement cases brought by local communities to force them to clean up their pollution.

Instead of draining the swamp, this administration jumped in with both feet. It proposes to mire our families and our water supplies in more coal ash pollution. If the utilities and the administration succeed, communities and clean water across the South and the country will suffer and, again, have to fear disasters like the one in Kingston.