Environmental groups say a Trump administration rollback of Obama-era coal ash rules could threaten Pennsylvania groundwater. The new rules, finalized on Tuesday, loosen requirements on utilities for disposing the coal ash left after burning.
Coal-fired power plants often dispose of their coal ash in ponds, or landfills. But the waste contains mercury, cadmium, arsenic, and other pollutants that can foul waterways, groundwater, and air, according to the EPA.
In 2015, the Obama administration created rules that mandated groundwater testing near the ponds, and created construction standards and reporting requirements.
But the Trump administration, after lobbying from the utility industry, loosened those rules.
The new rules allow states to stop monitoring groundwater near coal ash sites in certain situations. They also give power plants extra time to close leaking, unlined coal ponds.
Acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said in a statement: “Our actions mark a significant departure from the one-size-fits-all policies of the past and save tens of millions of dollars in regulatory costs.”
Environmental groups say the changes will put public health at risk.
“We think this gives relief to hundreds of leaking coal ash ponds throughout the country,” said Lisa Evans, an attorney with the environmental group Earth Justice.
According to data released this year, groundwater at several coal ash sites in Pennsylvania contained pollutants at levels above federal drinking water standards.
At Brunner Island power plant in York County, groundwater monitors recorded arsenic levels at over 13 times the EPA’s drinking water standard of 10 parts per billion.
Evans thinks loosening the groundwater monitoring requirements is a bad idea.
“It’s often not easy to know where the plumes of contamination go, and so groundwater monitoring is a critical safeguard to ensure that if leaking is occurring, it’s stopped.”
But EPA spokeswoman Enesta Jones said in an email that the monitoring exceptions are justified. Under the new rules, monitoring can be ended if states can demonstrate that there is little risk for underground pollution to migrate to the uppermost reaches of groundwater aquifers, where they could impact public health.
“(C)ertain…settings may preclude the migration of hazardous constituents” from coal ash, Jones said. In those cases, further monitoring “would provide little or no additional protection to human health and the environment.”
Jones said that in other EPA programs, states already have a similar policy.
The rules were applauded by the coal and utility industries.
Michelle Bloodworth, president and CEO of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, said in a statement that the rule’s looser provisions were important for “avoiding the premature shutdown of additional coal fired power plants across the country.”
Jim Roewer, executive director of the Utility Solid Waste Activities Group, an industry group, said in a statement that giving power plants more time to close down old coal ash ponds “provides the regulatory certainty needed to make investment decisions to ensure compliance and the continued protection of health and the environment.”
The coal ash rules created by the Obama administration came in response to a 2008 coal ash spill in Kingston, Tenn., in which a dam broke, spilling 5.4 million cubic yards of toxic coal ash waste into nearby waterways.
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.