WASHINGTON — The Trump administration accelerated the pace of its environmental rollbacks for the country’s coal-fired power plants Monday, proposing to weaken two Obama-era rules aimed at cleaning up dangerous heavy metals and ash from coal plants into groundwater and waterways.
The new proposals — the latest in a series of regulatory breaks granted by the administration for the sagging U.S. coal industry and for electric utilities using coal-fired power plants — reduces “heavy burdens on electricity producers across the country,” EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler said in a statement.
One of the two proposals released by Wheeler on Monday would relax some 2015 requirements on coal-fired power plants for cleaning coal ash and toxic heavy metals — including mercury, arsenic and selenium — from plant wastewater before dumping it into waterways.
The other would give some utilities up to several years more to clean up or close the more than 400 unlined coal ash dumps around the country that lie within a few feet of groundwater.
The rewrite serves to “insert a grab bag of loopholes into what had been a strong national set of health protections,” Thomas Cmar, attorney for the coal program of the environmental advocacy group Earthjustice.
It’s “allowing the power industry to continue dumping toxic contaminants in our waterways at the expense of public health,” Cmar said.
President Donald Trump has embraced a series of regulatory breaks and boosts sought by the coal and utility industries, including overturning U.S. support of the Paris climate accord and scrapping a legacy Obama climate program aimed at pushing dirtier-burning coal plants out of the country’s electrical grid.
But coal production in the U.S. has continued falling amid a boom for natural gas and some renewable energy, and U.S. coal facilities are closing despite the proposed regulatory relief. Coal magnate Robert Murray, an influential Trump donor and fundraiser who had presented the new administration with a written “action plan” of desired breaks for the coal industry, sought bankruptcy protection for his Murray Energy last week.
The Trump EPA says the relaxed wastewater rule will save $175 million annually in compliance costs. It contends that discharge of toxic contaminants into rivers, streams and creeks and ponds would actually go down, owing to what it says will be increased, voluntary wastewater cleanups by utilities. Conservation advocates and EPA regulators from the time of President Barack Obama call that claim unproven and unlikely.
On the other proposal, giving utilities more time to shut down leak-prone unlined coal ash pits, a spokeswoman with the industry’s American Public Power Association noted that operators will have to create new dump sites that meet standards. “This will undoubtedly take some time, and EPA acknowledges this reality” with its extended deadlines, spokeswoman Delia Patterson said.