EPA rolls back limits on wastewater from coal plants

The Environmental Protection Agency on Monday rolled back Obama administration rules limiting levels of toxic materials in wastewater released from coal plants, its latest effort to slash environmental regulations for the coal industry as the Trump administration’s first term winds down.

The EPA finalized “effluent limitations” for two types of waste from coal plants, a savings of $140 million annually for industry.

“Newer, more affordable pollution control technologies and flexibility on the regulation’s phase-in will reduce pollution and save jobs at the same time,” agency administrator Andrew Wheeler said.

A senior EPA official said the final rule would reduce pollution by nearly a million pounds per year over the 2015 rule, though environmental groups said the rollback lets industry use cheaper, less effective treatment methods on polluted wastewater that puts waterways at risk. The changes apply to flue gas desulfurization (FGD) wastewater and bottom ash transport waste. The rollback eases requirements for how they are treated before being released, offers a “flexible, phase-in approach” for implementation and pushes back compliance dates.

“The Trump administration’s rollback will be responsible for hundreds of thousands of pounds of pollutants contaminating sources of drinking water, lakes, rivers and streams every year,” said Thomas Cmar, deputy managing attorney of Earthjustice, who said the group will sue the EPA over the rollback.

The EPA proposed the rollback in November after initially delaying implementation of the 2015 Obama proposal, which sought to force coal-fired power plants to shut down unlined coal ash pits in 2019 and recycle 100% of their system’s water.

The 2019 proposal gave coal plants more time to either retrofit or shut down unlined ash pits or ponds where plants store coal ash waste, which contain carcinogens like arsenic and neurotoxins that can seep from these into nearby waterways.

The National Mining Association welcomed the final rule.

“The coal industry wants to be able to compete while also safeguarding important environmental protections – this rule shows that balance is possible,” said its president, Rich Nolan.

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