Trump EPA plans to ease Obama-era U.S. rules on toxic coal ash

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Trump administration on Monday unveiled a proposal to give coal-fired power plants more time to comply with Obama-era clean water rules that required them to stop dumping ash in unlined pits and reduce releases of toxic waste.

FILE PHOTO: A sign warns boaters on Lake Norman near the "hot hole" where water is released from Duke Energy's Marshall Power Plant in Sherrills Ford, North Carolina, U.S. November 29, 2018. Picture taken November 29, 2018. To match Special Report USA-COAL/POLLUTION. REUTERS/Chris Keane/File Photo

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposal is part of the administration’s broader effort to ease regulations on the coal industry, beset by bankruptcies as it struggles to compete with cheaper natural gas and renewable energy.

The EPA said the proposal would save utilities over $175 million a year in regulatory compliance costs. Environmental group Earthjustice said the proposal puts Americans’ water supply at risk.

The proposal, published on the EPA website, would give most generators until Aug. 31, 2020 to either retrofit or shut down unlined ash pits. Some facilities would get an extra three years.

Many utilities store coal ash waste in unlined pits or ponds near power plants. Carcinogens like arsenic and neurotoxins such as lead and lithium can seep from these into nearby bodies of water.

The proposal gives plants until the end of 2028 to implement new wastewater disposal standards if they can show they are taking voluntary measures to limit the amount of pollutants like mercury, arsenic, selenium, and bromide in the effluent.

“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’s 2015 coal and wastewater rules had initially sought to force coal-fired power plants to shut down unlined coal ash pits in 2019 and recycle 100% of their system’s water, according to an EPA rule summary.

The Trump administration had temporarily delayed those rules after the industry complained they were too onerous, but a court decision in 2018 forced the EPA to come up with a formal proposal to address coal waste.

Earthjustice pointed to a report it produced with the Environmental Integrity Project showing most coal-fired power plants had unsafe levels of toxins in nearby groundwater.

“Instead of taking that data into account and recognizing these rules need to be made stronger, this administration has been turning a blind eye to the facts,” said Thomas Cmar, a lawyer for Earthjustice.

EPA estimates that there are about 1,000 coal ash pits or ponds across the United States, as well as thousands of sites where ash has been buried.

Reporting by Valerie Volcovici; Editing by David Gregorio