Don't Relax the Rules on Coal Ash
When you think of pollution from coal-fired power plants, you may envision dark soot puffing out of tall smokestacks, peppering the air and making it harder for people to breathe. But since technology has eliminated much of this airborne pollution, what's worse for the environment now is coal ash, a sludge that pours from U.S. power plants at the rate of more than 100 million tons each year.
In 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency confronted the problem by imposing two new rules for coal ash disposal. Earlier this month, EPA chief Scott Pruitt took a step backward, postponing some of the rules' provisions while he reconsiders them. There's reason to worry that he will ultimately allow power plants to return to unsafe disposal practices.
That would be an enormous mistake, because a substance as dangerous as coal ash needs to be handled with care -- not dumped haphazardly in landfills and manmade ponds as it routinely has been in nearly every state. Coal ash contains arsenic, mercury and lead. In an open landfill, these and other heavy metals can evaporate into the air. And in poorly secured ponds, they can leak into people's drinking water.
Prolonged exposure to such toxic substances can cause heart damage, lung disease and other respiratory ailments, kidney disease and birth defects. Arsenic in drinking water, in particular, raises cancer risk well above the EPA's threshold. The heavy metals are also consumed by fish, and can work their way up the food chain.
The new EPA rules are meant to shore up U.S. coal-ash ponds, most of which are over 40 years old. More than 500 of them have no protective liners to prevent the leakage of heavy metals, and 300 are held back by dams now at risk of breaking. One of the rules requires that all disposal ponds have liners, that unsafe dams be repaired, and that there be regular inspections, groundwater monitoring, and, if necessary, cleanup. The second rule limits, among other things, the levels of toxic metals that power plants can release and the amount of fresh water they can use to flush them out.
Utility companies have complained that the operational changes involved are too difficult and expensive, and could force them to close some plants. But the only alternative is to go back to dumping coal ash into poorly secured and monitored landfills and ponds.
President Donald Trump makes no secret of his desire to revive the coal industry, whatever the cost. With Pruitt, he is pushing to dismantle the Clean Power Plan, which puts pressure on states to use less coal-fired power. He is working to allow more coal mining on federal land. And, with the Senate, he has already repealed the Stream Protection Rule, which prevented the dumping of toxic waste from coal mining into streams. Each of these steps threatens to have bad environmental and public health effects, but backtracking on the coal ash rules poses especially grave dangers.
Consider that the 2008 coal ash spill that prompted the disposal rules was the largest environmental disaster ever to happen in the U.S.: A dike holding back a coal-ash pond at a Tennessee Valley Authority facility in Kingston, Tennessee, gave way, releasing a billion gallons of slurry into the Emory River and burying 300 acres of land in toxic sludge.
In 2014, 39,000 tons of coal ash sludge mixed in millions of gallons of water spilled into the Dan River in North Carolina. Three years later, cleanup is still unfinished. Once left to infiltrate soil or water, coal ash never biodegrades or becomes any less hazardous over time. The time and money we spend on it should go toward disposing of it properly, not cleaning up calamitous spills.
Pruitt is wrong to delay the coal ash rules. He should instead see that they are kept in place permanently and fully enforced.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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Mary Duenwald at firstname.lastname@example.org