Feds sued for easing regulations on coal ash

About 730 million tons of coal were extracted from U.S. mines like this in 2016, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Approximately 40 percent of that was produced on federal lands. (GAO)

WASHINGTON (CN) — Coal ash, a top polluting waste in the United States second only to household trash, is flowing unchecked from power plants under President Donald Trump, nine conservation groups suing the Environmental Protection Agency claimed Monday.

In a petition for review of a rollback of Obama-era regulations filed with the D.C. Circuit, the groups claim the EPA in August weakened national standards that limit toxic water pollution.

Hannah Connor, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, called the rule change a gift to the fossil fuel industry at the expense of public health.

“Many power plants could easily adopt affordable technologies that dramatically reduce toxic discharges, but with this rule, the EPA is telling their polluter friends not to bother with these common-sense measures,” Connor said in a statement.

The rollback adds to the long pattern of the Trump administration bowing to coal-power industry lobbyists, the petitioners argued. An EPA spokesperson declined to comment on the pending litigation.

After being sued by some of the same groups that filed Monday’s petition, the EPA in 2015 finalized the so-called coal ash rule, the first-ever regulation of coal ash clean up at hundreds of sites across the country. Scientists warn the toxic residue can trigger health problems like cancer, reproductive failure and brain damage in children.

Failure to regulate the flow of toxic water can also increase the cost of drinking water, make some fish unsafe to eat and harm dozens of endangered species, including sea turtles and freshwater mussels, the petitioners warned.

The Environmental Integrity Project last year reported that toxins like arsenic, lead, mercury and selenium had tainted water supplies near 265 coal plants or offsite coal ash disposal areas in 39 states and Puerto Rico.

“The Clean Water Act requires each industry to catch up with the best performers — the plants with the best pollution control technology. This rule does the exact opposite, and allows power plants to fall as low as the worst performers in the industry,” Abel Russ, a senior attorney with the organization, said in a statement. “It won’t stand up in court.”

Back in 2015, the EPA had projected the now-voided Obama standards would stop 1.4 billion pounds of the toxic heavy metals from contaminating rivers and lakes each year.

Thomas Cmar, deputy managing attorney for Earthjustice’s coal program, said Monday that plants often mix coal ash with water to keep it from drifting in the wind. The result is “ponds” of contaminated sludge that due to lack of regulations are unlined and seep into the groundwater, he added.

The Chesapeake Climate Action Network, Clean Water Action, Natural Resources Defense Council, PennEnvironment, Prairie Rivers Network, Sierra Club and Waterkeeper Alliance joined the Center for Biological Diversity and the Environmental Integrity Project in filing Monday’s lawsuit.