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EPA offers ‘gift’ to coal industry by delaying toxic wastewater rules for power plants

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The Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday officially postponed rules limiting toxic water pollution from coal-fired power plants, a move that environmental groups are calling a gift to the coal industry and owners of coal-fired power plants.

The EPA’s move “resets the clock” for the toxic wastewater guidelines, providing relief to power plant owners from existing regulatory deadlines while the agency studies the regulation, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said in a statement. The plants now will have until November 1, 2020 to comply with the rule, instead of November 1, 2018.

A coalition of power plant owners and other energy companies had argued the rules “will cause negative impacts on jobs dues to the excessive costs of compliance — which were grossly underestimated by the EPA — and regulatory burdens forcing plant closures.”

The clean water protections implemented in 2015 would have kept heavy metals like arsenic, lead, mercury, and boron from being dumped into local waterways and helped prevent serious health problems caused by contaminated drinking water, including birth defects, cancer, and stunted mental development in young children. Power plants would have had to start complying with the requirements by as early as November 2018 under the Obama-era rule.

Upon taking over as EPA administrator in February, Pruitt emphasized a “back-to-basics” approach to environmental protection that would narrow the agency’s focus to cleaning up the nation’s air and water, with less attention on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But the former Oklahoma attorney general also has stated his concerns about the financial health of the coal industry and his desire to help coal companies recover from their long period of decline.

“Coal-burning power plants are the number-one source of toxic water pollution in this country,” Earthjustice attorney Thomas Cmar said Wednesday in a statement. “We know that this pollution can cause brain damage in children as well as cancer.” Cmar described Pruitt’s action “a bold-faced gift to the coal industry at the expense of the health of families everywhere.”

EPA began efforts to roll back the power plant wastewater standards in April, when Pruitt suspended limits on the amount of toxic pollutants such as arsenic, mercury, and lead that power plants are allowed to release into waters. The final rule announced Wednesday postpones the compliance dates for the effluent limitations and pretreatment standards for two kinds of waste from power plants — bottom ash transport water and flue gas desulfurization wastewater — for a period of two years. The standards were developed with consideration of the best available technology and what is economically viable, and they apply to new and already existing facilities. 

At least four other kinds of waste will still be subject to the 2015 rule. Pruitt said the EPA does not intend at this time to conduct a rulemaking that would revise limitations and standards for fly ash transport water, flue gas mercury control wastewater, gasification wastewater, or any of the other requirements.

“Today’s final rule resets the clock for certain portions of the agency’s effluent guidelines for power plants, providing relief from the existing regulatory deadlines while the agency revisits some of the rule’s requirements,” Pruitt said in a statement.

On Wednesday, the EPA also filed the rule with a federal district court in Washington, D.C., where public health and environmental groups have been challenging the agency’s April action to suspend the toxic water pollution standards. The EPA stated in the court filing that it intends to seek dismissal of the advocacy groups’ lawsuit now that the agency has taken additional action to delay the rule.

The 2015 new standards developed by the Obama EPA modernized 1982 rules on toxic discharges produced by coal-burning power plants under the Clean Water Act.

Nearly 40 percent of all coal plants discharge toxic pollution within five miles of a downstream community’s drinking water intake. Coal plant wastewater has contaminated more than 23,000 miles of waterways, including nearly 400 water bodies used as drinking water sources, according to the Sierra Club.

Pruitt’s delay in the deadlines for effluent limitation guidelines water protections comes as coal plant owners were preparing to comply with the new standards. Pruitt provided no valid legal justification for the delay, according to the Sierra Club.

“Keeping industrial sludge and foul wastewater from coal plants out of our drinking water supplies shouldn’t be something that should be up for debate, but Donald Trump and Scott Pruitt just made it one — solidifying their current role as callous henchmen for billionaire fossil fuel executives with no regard for working families,” Mary Anne Hitt, director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, said in a statement.

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