EPA proposes rollback of coal ash regulations

Photo of contaminated water from Waterkeeper Alliance Inc., flickr

Tyler Chalfant |November 7th, 2019

The Trump administration proposed on Monday a rollback of EPA regulations on coal-fired power plants that could prolong the risk of drinking water contamination. The Obama-era rules focused on cleaning up unlined ponds used by companies to store coal ash residue. 

Coal ash contains toxic heavy metals such as arsenic, lead and mercury. These regulations, created following a 2008 coal ash spill in Tennessee, required all unlined coal ash ponds to begin closing last year, but the new proposal extends that deadline three years. Coal ash contamination has been found in at least 22 states, including Iowa.

The EPA also relaxed the limit on the amount of coal plant wastewater that can be discharged, citing improvements in technology which makes removing contaminants easier, as well as the $175 million in compliance costs they claim this change would save the industry. 

This move follows a pattern of efforts by this White House to support the coal industry. Researchers have found that lowering prices for competing energy sources, such as wind and natural gas, are more to blame for the decline of the coal industry in recent years than environmental regulations. 

Still, the Environmental Protection Agency is expected to make key decisions regarding coal industry standards in the year before the presidential election, according to political experts. These could affect regulation on mercury and air quality standards.

EPA Calls for More Testing at Alliant’s Coal Ash Ponds in Burlington

Can about 68 acres of coal ash ponds in Burlington withstand an earthquake? To find out, the EPA has required Alliant Energy to do more testing of their supporting walls, according to a statement from the agency.

The EPA does not believe the area to be dangerous, but it has exercised extreme caution on coal ash sites since December 2008, when a retaining wall gave way at a Tennessee Valley Authority plant, burying homes under six feet of sludge spread over 400 acres.

As of April 2011, EPA has conducted structural integrity assessments for 381 coal ash impoundments at 152 coal-fired power plants.