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A Coal-Friendly EPA Does Americans No Favors

Tatiana Schlossberg

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Eleven years ago, in the earliest hours of December 22, 2008, at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston Fossil Plant in Kingston, Tennessee, a dam holding back coal ash slurry — a toxic soup of factory wastewater and burnt coal — broke. The broken dam released over a billion gallons of ash slurry into the Clinch and Emory Rivers and buried about 300 acres of land several feet deep under a poisonous sludge of lead, arsenic, mercury and other heavy metals.

The spill was three times larger than the TVA’s initial estimate — in fact, it was more than what the TVA said was in the pond to begin with. Cleaning up the spill took years; a process that was beset by further environmental crimes. The waste was mainly carted away to Uniontown, Alabama, where it was dumped into an uncovered landfill outside of a predominantly black community. Moreover, the company contracted by the TVA to clean up the site, Jacobs Engineering Group, did not provide adequate protective equipment, according to a lawsuit filed by workers, who sat atop piles of toxic waste to eat their lunches. Around 20 workers died of illnesses caused by exposure to the waste, and another 200 or so were sickened, the suit claimed — which the workers won last year.

It was one of the largest environmental disasters in American history (about 100 times larger than the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989), it happened this century, and yet we rarely hear about it, even when we talk about coal — its contribution to greenhouse gas emissions, the market forces pushing coal companies out of business, and the pensions and pay denied to miners and workers as a result.  

Last month, Andrew Wheeler, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency and a former lobbyist for the coal industry, announced a second set of regulatory rollbacks that would make the Kingston disaster and others like it more likely, as well as increasing the daily threat of incremental groundwater and air pollution from coal ash. Instead of protecting the air we breathe, and the water we drink, bathe and swim in, the EPA is giving a major gift to the coal industry at the expense of the health of millions of Americans — a lump of coal in our stockings if ever there was one.

The EPA has taken this action despite the fact that coal ash is one of the largest industrial solid waste streams in the country and contains many substances hazardous to human health. We generate around 130 million tons of coal ash every year (since coal still provides around 25-30% of our energy) in nearly every state. There are about 1,100 coal ash ponds across the U.S., and another 400 or so landfills. Even if we stopped burning coal today, we would still have to deal with the problem of coal ash — it doesn’t degrade, so it’s not going anywhere. It was never even regulated at the federal level until 2015, and then only as a direct response to the Kingston spill.

We should be tightening, not loosening, the federal regulations on coal ash. The statistics about the everyday pollution it causes are shocking. A report from Earthjustice and the Environmental Integrity Project earlier this year found that 91% of coal plants across the country have one or more coal ash pollutants in the groundwater beneath their storage ponds at levels exceeding safe standards. About a third of coal ash ponds are less than five miles from a public drinking water intake; about 80% are less than five miles from a drinking water well. A study from Duke University showed that groundwater next to coal ash ponds in five states in the Southeast had concentrations of coal ash pollutants higher than what is found in nature and showed strong evidence of leaking, regardless of whether the ponds were still receiving new coal ash waste. The EPA has found more than 250 instances in which power plants may have harmed surface groundwater. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights found that minority, rural, and low-income communities disproportionately suffer from coal ash pollution.  Long-term exposure to cadmium (a coal ash pollutant) in drinking water can lead to a frightening number of health problems — kidney, lung and blood illnesses, including a heightened risk of cancer — according to health experts.

Speaking about the country’s aging coal ash infrastructure, an environmental lawyer once told me, “We are biding our time until the next disaster.” The Obama administration’s regulations were meant to protect us from that: coal ash ponds had to be fixed or closed; utilities had to monitor their groundwater and make that information public; citizens could sue utilities for violations; and more. Environmental groups sued to make the regulations stronger; lobbyists for utilities sued to weaken them.

When he became administrator of the EPA, Scott Pruitt announced his intention to rewrite these rules. When Andrew Wheeler took his place as acting administrator, among the first rules he signed was a revision to the coal ash rules, which gave more enforcement power back to the states and weakened the regulations in other ways too. Last month, the EPA announced further changes: relaxing the limits on toxic pollutant discharge; delaying the date by which coal ash ponds must close until 2023 (it had already been pushed back to 2020 from 2018); and other giveaways to the industry. 

The rewriting of rules on coal ash disposal is part of the Trump administration’s larger agenda to make polluting more profitable, with the American people paying the cost — both in terms of our health and the habitability of our planet. 

We saw what happened when coal ash waste was unregulated or under-regulated. The past is never dead and buried, even when it’s underneath several feet of coal ash waste. It’s also not even past, as William Faulkner once noted. By not paying attention to the slow erosion of the laws and regulations enacted to clean up our environment 50 years ago, we are letting that past become unburied, and become our present once again. 

To contact the author of this story: Tatiana Schlossberg at tatiana.schlossberg@gmail.com

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Tatiana Schlossberg, a former New York Times science reporter, writes about climate change and the environment.

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