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A Trump administration rollback of rules for toxic wastewater from coal plants won’t have an immediate effect on coal-fired power plants in Pennsylvania, because the state has already adopted tougher Obama-era EPA standards for treating the waste. 

But environmental advocates said the move could open up the possibility that coal plants could seek to release higher levels of pollutants into the state’s rivers and streams that provide drinking water for millions of people. 

The new rules, finalized by EPA this week, would exempt coal plants that run at lower capacity or are in their final years of service from having to comply with tougher standards adopted by the agency in 2015. In addition, it allows plants to use less expensive technology to clean up wastewater from smokestack scrubbers that remove air pollutants, and allows some treated coal ash slurry to be released into rivers and streams. It also pushes compliance for most plants back to 2025.  

The EPA says the rule changes would reduce costs for the coal power plant industry by $140 million a year. 

The power industry sought the changes to the 2015 rule, which the agency said at the time would keep 1.4 billion pounds of pollution out of rivers and streams. 

“The revisions provide environmental protections in a technologically and economically achievable manner, which is critical to EEI member companies’ ability to continue providing reliable, affordable, and clean energy to U.S. homes and businesses,” said Quin Shea, vice president for environment, natural resources, and occupational safety & health at the Edison Electric Institute (EEI), one of the industry groups that lobbied EPA for the changes.

Tracking Trump’s 100 Environmental Rollbacks

Environmental Groups Criticize the Move

But environmental groups worry the rule will allow coal pollution to continue for years in the U.S. 

“This is a very significant rollback of the protections the Obama administration put in place,” said Zachary Fabish, an attorney with the Sierra Club. “The Obama rule, as good as it was, was long overdue. And this rule just weakens and delays it even further.”

The wastewater regulated by the rule comes from scrubbers put on coal smokestacks to comply with federal clean air regulations, and from coal slurry used to transport coal ash to disposal ponds. Both contain some of the same toxic materials: mercury, arsenic, and selenium. The wastewater also contains bromides, a kind of salt that can create carcinogenic compounds in drinking water plants. 

Pennsylvania’s Tighter Rules

In 2018, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection agreed in a settlement with environmental groups to require the tighter Obama-era waste controls on 10 coal-fired power plants around the state. 

Since then, “all the water pollution permits for Pennsylvania’s coal-fired power plants have been updated in the last several years with the provisions from the Obama era…rule,” said Tom Schuster, Clean Energy Program Director for the Sierra Club Pennsylvania Chapter. 

Schuster said any plant that hasn’t already installed controls to comply with the stricter standards could try to have its permit changed to reflect the Trump administration’s more relaxed standards, “but it would be subject to public notice and comment, and we would aggressively fight the change.”

Pennsylvania DEP Reacts

Fabish said the rollback puts the Pennsylvania DEP in a difficult position, if coal plants ask to have their pollution permits relaxed to be more in line with the new EPA rules. 

“The reality is, is that weakening the federal rule weakens these permits,” Fabish said. “If the federal rule changes, you know, I think it’s overwhelmingly likely that these (plants) are going to try and get their permits changed.” 

Lauren Fraley, a spokesperson for the DEP, said the agency was reviewing the new EPA rule.

This story is produced in partnership with StateImpact Pennsylvania, a collaboration among The Allegheny Front, WPSU, WITF and WHYY to cover the commonwealth's energy economy.