The Trump administration made another attempt on Monday to prop up the sagging coal industry by proposing to relax two Obama-era rules meant to curb water pollution from power plants and clean up the ponds utilities use to store toxic coal ash.
The moves would make it less expensive for utilities to burn coal to produce electricity at a time when coal mining companies are going bankrupt and coal-fired power plants are closing.
With the next presidential election now just 12 months away, the moves may also represent the start of a final-year deregulatory push by the administration.
In the coming months, the EPA alone is expected to make key decisions affecting coal-burning utilities' obligations under the nation's Superfund toxic cleanup program, the regulation of mercury, and the nation's air quality standards for lung-damaging particulates and smog.
"The (rule-making) pace is likely to pick up," said University of Pennsylvania professor of law and political science Cary Coglianese. That's normal for administrations as they reach what could be the end of their time in power, he said.
"My thought would be none of these moves will save the coal industry," he added.
Other researchers have come to similar conclusions. Coal has been fighting for its survival on many fronts in recent years amid a glut of cheaper natural gas and increasingly competitive pressure from wind and solar power, in addition to a broad range of federal regulations.
Ash Ponds Closures and Water Pollution Rules
Burning coal has produced one of the nation's largest waste streams, and the EPA has wrestled with what to do with all the ash and scrubber sludge for decades. The Obama EPA declined to classify it as hazardous, even though it contains toxic heavy metals linked to cancer and other illnesses.
Still, EPA sought to force utilities to better manage their ash in the aftermath of the 2008 coal ash disaster in Kingston, Tennessee, where a levee holding back a mountain of sodden ash suddenly broke loose and spilled into two rivers. Three homes were destroyed, dozens more were damaged and now dozens of sick cleanup workers and the families of cleanup workers who have died are suing for damages.
In 2015, the Obama EPA adopted the nation's first rules for managing the coal-burning wastes produced at power plants, including calling for closure of unlined ash ponds by April 2019. Trump's EPA extended that deadline to October 2020.
The Obama-era rules also required utilities to test the groundwater near their ponds for contaminants. The industry's own reports earlier this year revealed that about 91 percent of power plants that store coal-burning wastes had leaked toxic coal ash contaminants from their storage ponds, according to a review by the Environmental Integrity Project and other advocacy groups.
The new proposal extends the deadline under some circumstances to as far out as 2028.
The Obama EPA also adopted a coal plant effluent rule that sought to prevent electric utilities from pouring 1.4 billion pounds of pollutants into U.S. rivers and lakes each year, including drinking water sources.
The new EPA proposal for power plant effluent would allow for what the EPA now calls less costly water treatment options and banks on some utilities voluntarily using more stringent treatment. Critics say loopholes could allow for a lot of that water to be released into rivers or lakes untreated or partially treated.
EPA officials on Monday said they were responding to lawsuits and were trying to clear up uncertainty for utilities. "These proposed revisions support the Trump administration's commitment to responsible, reasonable regulations by taking a commonsense approach, which also protects public health and the environment," EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said in a written statement.
EPA also released a statement from West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, supporting the rollbacks.
"We applaud the Trump EPA's latest efforts to protect coal mining and the livelihoods of those who depend on its success in West Virginia," Morrisey said, adding that the proposed regulations will "improve the regulatory burden on the coal industry" and lower utility bills.
Between 2010 and the first quarter of 2019, U.S. power companies announced the retirement of more than 546 coal-fired power units. Coal was forecast to provide 25 percent of U.S. generation this past summer, down from 28 percent in 2018 and nearly 50 percent around 2008.
Environmental advocates had pressed the Obama administration in court for tighter coal ash and coal plant effluent regulations. On Monday, they promised to sue over the rollbacks.
"With this dangerous new proposal, the Trump administration has made explicit what has been obvious from day one: Industry profits are more important to the administration than people's health or clean water," said Thomas Cmar, deputy managing attorney of the Earthjustice Coal Program. "These rules are supposed to safeguard our water from toxic pollution, but the laundry list of loopholes proposed by the Trump EPA threatens to completely undo the protections."
Both new proposals face a 60 day public comment period and public hearings before they can become final.
More Rollbacks on the Way?
The proposed rules on coal ash ponds and coal plant effluent follow an EPA proposal in July to eliminate Obama-era limits on how much ash can be dumped on the ground at construction sites to fill in holes or ravines. EPA said then that it would relax some of the safeguards intended to prevent water contamination from that type of ash dumping.
The Trump administration had already scrapped Obama's Clean Power Plan and repealed a Department of Interior rule that sought to protect streams from coal mining waste.
And more rollbacks are expected.
By early December, the EPA aims to finalize a determination that electric power companies do not need to demonstrate that they have the financial resources to cover potential clean-ups under the federal Superfund toxic waste program. This would end an initiative begun, but never finalized, under the Obama administration as part of its response to the Kingston coal ash spill.
EPA is also working to finish a dramatically revised cost analysis for regulation of mercury from coal- and oil-fired power plants, discounting the health benefits of other pollutants that would be reduced as steps are taken to control emissions of the potent neurotoxin. Critics say the revision sets the stage for weakening the mercury standard, while establishing an approach that will help tip the balance in the coal power industry's favor in future regulatory decision-making.
And under a fast-track schedule established by Trump's first EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, the EPA wants to complete reviews of the national air quality standards for particulate matter and ozone—two dangerous coal stack pollutants—by December 2020, months before they were originally due. Wheeler dismissed the agency's panel of outside experts on particulate matter to speed the process along; that panel recently held its own meeting anyway, and recommended that the EPA strengthen the standard based on recent science that the current level of regulation is not protective of public health.
To avoid potential consequences of the Congressional Review Act, which allowed Trump and a Republican Congress to repeal a number of late-adopted rules from the Obama administration, the Trump administration may need to complete its rule making this summer, said Coglianese, the law professor.
However, any major new rules adopted by the Trump administration from here on out are likely to be challenged by environmental groups or even some states, he said.
"That ligation will still be pending if there is a new administration in 2021," he said. "That administration can come in and say, 'hold those lawsuits in abeyance, we are going to move to revoke these rules.'"
Plenty is at stake, said former EPA water official Elizabeth "Betsy" Southerland, who helped draft the coal plant effluent rule. She said the Trump administration's proposals announced Monday will result in more toxic mercury, arsenic, and selenium in rivers and lakes for several more years.
Other rollbacks could further environmental and health consequences, she said.
"Everything they are doing, and it's so sad, they are really degrading the air and water of the entire country, in order to eke out a few additional years of these coal-fired plants that are going to go under anyway," she said. "All of us are going to have to suffer with contaminated air, contaminated water, contaminated fisheries."
InsideClimate News reporter Marianne Lavelle contributed to this report.