Act Now: Our Toxic Coal Ash Legacy - Waterkeeper

Act Now: Our Toxic Coal Ash Legacy

By: Daniel E. Estrin

Coal-fired power plants are by far the single largest contributor of toxic pollutants such as arsenic, cadmium, and lead to waterways across the United States, endangering public health and wildlife. Waterkeeper Alliance and Waterkeeper groups have been fighting for most of our history to reduce or eliminate these toxic threats to our waters. 

After years of industry and government resistance, we finally saw progress when the Obama administration issued regulations requiring safer management and disposal of toxic coal ash under federal solid waste and clean water laws: the Coal Combustion Residuals Rule (“Coal Ash Rule”) and the Power Plant Effluent Limitation Guidelines and Standards (“Clean Water Act ELG Rule”), respectively.   

While these rules represented steps forward in our fight against coal ash pollution, they would still allow toxic coal ash to be managed and disposed of unsafely and too much toxic pollution to enter our waters. So Waterkeeper Alliance and partners sued to challenge both of those rules. 

In 2018, we achieved a significant legal victory when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled that the first-ever federal standards for toxic coal ash dumps were not strong enough to protect communities and the environment, and required the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to strengthen parts of the CCR Rule to better protect public health.

Then, in 2019, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit ruled that EPA’s Clean Water Act ELG rule was also far too lenient, describing some of EPA’s new treatment requirements — which are required by law to be the “Best Available Technology Economically Available” as unacceptably antiquated, saying it was “as if Apple unveiled the new iMac, and it was a Commodore 64.” Like the D.C. Circuit in 2018, the 5th Circuit also sent EPA back to the drawing board to craft a stronger rule.     

Sadly, the Trump administration failed to get the message, and is now thumbing its nose at the courts, and at EPA’s mission “to protect human health and the environment.” Since taking office, the administration has been working on behalf of the power industry to delay, withdraw, and weaken these already-too-weak rules protecting us from toxic coal. 

Our wins in court threw a monkey wrench into the administration’s deregulatory works, but have not been able to completely stop them.

Over the past few months, in an obvious effort to complete their dangerous work before the upcoming election, Trump’s EPA has now completed many of its efforts to weaken these rules. Incredibly, the administration has issued no fewer than eight new segmented and complicated rules to withdraw the Coal Ash Rule and the Clean Water Act ELG Rule and to replace them with rules that are even weaker than the ones the courts have struck down as unlawful. 

These efforts to issue unlawfully weak regulations and prioritize polluting industries over people will not stand. Write EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler today and tell him that EPA’s toxic coal rollbacks will have an unconscionable impact on our health and waterways.

Feature image: Coal power plant by Calin Tatu/Shutterstock.