Large coal ash spills, one in Tennessee in 2008 and one in North Carolina six years later, prompted the Environmental Protection Agency to increase oversight. EPA in 2015 adopted stricter rules for monitoring and regulating carcinogenic substances that go from coal ash ponds into public waters.
As Wes Wolfe of the Brunswick News reported Tuesday, the coal ash issue is a concern in Georgia as well “following the Broadhurst landfill controversy in Wayne County and work at the shuttered Plant McManus site.”
It is not, it would seem, as much of a concern in Washington.
Last week, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt announced a two-year suspension of the rules regulating coal ash toxins such as chromium, lead, cadmium, arsenic and mercury, left when coal is burned in power plants to generate electricity. (More than 40 percent of coal ash is recycled to for the manufacture of building materials.) The action comes, according to the newspaper, at the request of the U.S. Small Business Administration and the Utility Water Act Group.
The cost/benefits analysis is a point of debate: According to EPA’s own estimates, the coal ash rules were projected to reduce the discharge of pollutants by 1.4 billion pounds and reduce water withdrawal by 57 billion gallons. Total compliance cost was estimated at $480 million, total benefits at $451-566 million — an admittedly pliable and almost by definition subjective number.
The two-year suspension, Pruitt said in a statement, “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.” He called the action “appropriate and in the public interest.”
That’s a delicately worded justification, to put it diplomatically.
The coal ash regulations to be suspended require new pits to be lined to prevent seepage into groundwater, according to the Washington Post; and companies that generate coal ash must conduct water quality tests in the area and disclose more information on the web. (The EPA reportedly is suspending those public health rules as well.)
“We bent over backwards for industry both in terms of the substance of the rule and in terms of the timing,” former EPA official Ken Kopocis told the Post, adding that in light of recent severe storms and the threat of more to come, coal ash pits are “ticking time bombs.”
The agency noted that permanently revoking the coal ash rules — if indeed EPA decides to do that — would be a complex process that could take years. But two years, especially in the wake of violent weather and the prospect of more, is an ominously big window.
“In light of EPA’s new statutory authority,” Pruitt’s statement said, “it is important that we give the existing rule a hard look and consider improvements that may help states tailor their permit programs to the needs of their states, in a way that provides greater regulatory certainty, while also ensuring that human health and the environment remain protected.”