Another day, another Trump administration rollback of a policy designed to protect the environment. This time, the EPA has proposed lifting some of the regulations on the way that coal-fired power plants store and release their waste.
It’s a move that the EPA said is designed to bolster a struggling coal industry, as relaxing the restrictions could help plants cut costs. But environmental advocates say the regulations were put in place for a reason, and rolling them back could make it easier for toxic chemicals such as arsenic, mercury and cadmium into water supplies.
Plus, experts say the potential cut costs wouldn’t be enough to save the ailing industry in the long run – just a short-term bandage that comes with high-stakes risks.
The weakened restrictions will pertain specifically to coal ash disposal and the wastewater from coal plants. Coal ash is the stuff that’s left behind when coal is burnt, and power plants produce about 130 million tons of it each year. Those plants use to dump it with abandon, sometimes in areas called coal ash storage ponds, but environmental advocates pushed for more regulations after giant coal ash spills in places like Tennessee poisoned water supplies, flooded homes and led to long-term health issues for workers who had to clean up the spill.
Even without a spill, little regulation of the heavy metals in coal ash can lead to all kinds of health issues for those who live in close proximity to coal-fired plants, including higher rates of premature death, increased risk of respiratory issues and lung cancer, higher infant mortality and poor overall health and brain development in kids.
In short, stricter regulations went into place to protect the workers in these coal-fired plants, as well as the 1.1 million people in the communities near them. At the time, lawmakers hoped it would save about 1.4 billion pounds of pollutants from making their way into the rivers surrounding coal-fired plants.
So … We’re Not Worried About Protecting Them Anymore?
It certainly seems that way. The Trump administration is arguing that they’re worried about protecting the coal industry as a whole, and say the measures would be put in place simply to help plants take more time to meet deadlines for the more expensive regulations about coal ash ponds, all of which were supposed to begin closing by 2018 under the Obama-era regulations.
But environmental advocates are worried that the EPA proposal would be full of loopholes that allow some plants to get out of regulations entirely, endangering lives in the process. Not to mention the temporary cost-saving measures wouldn’t be enough to bring back an industry that’s seen a decline thanks to people turning to lower-cost and more environmentally friendly options like renewable energy sources and natural gas.
The EPA hasn’t put any official rules (or lack thereof) into place yet, but several environmental groups said they plan to legally push back against them when they come.