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EPA limits scientific studies as it considers reducing coal-ash rules

By Dan Heyman • Updated May 22, 2018 at 9:00 AM

KINGSTON – Tennessee knows more than most states the impact coal ash can have on a community – having been home to a coal fly ash slurry spill in Kingston in 2008. 

Near the end of April, the Environmental Protection Agency held a public hearing where communities impacted by coal ash asked the agency not to roll back safeguards, as proposed by EPA head Scott Pruitt. Coal ash contains toxic pollutants such as arsenic, lead and radioactive elements, many of which have no federal maximum contaminant level for drinking water. 

According to Lisa Evans, senior administrative counsel at the environmental law firm Earthjustice, the current regulations require leaks from coal ash dumps to be cleaned up before they reach drinking water.

“What Pruitt would like to do is to allow states or the polluters themselves to set their own standards for those chemicals that don’t have a federal MCL,” Evans said.

Public comment on the proposed changes ended April 30. 

The EPA estimates the changes would save electric utilities up to $100 million per year in compliance costs. Also this week, the environmental agency announced it would limit the kinds of scientific studies it would use when it develops policies. 

Critics said the move will permanently limit the agency’s ability to protect the public.

But Evans pointed out that the new regulation goes further than giving states discretion in setting limits on toxic pollutants from coal ash in drinking water. A close reading of the fine print revealed a critical omission.

“They didn’t require that the states or the polluters consider the health of children,” she observed. “So that will allow them to set those levels at a higher standard, which is even more damaging to children.”

Evans said there is no scientific basis for the proposed rule, which she said is being rushed through at the request of the electric utilities. And this rule change could just be the beginning.

“We are expecting the Trump administration to come out with a second rule, they said in September,” Evans said. “So, it’s a one-two punch against public health and safety.”

Children are especially vulnerable to the effects of coal ash pollutants, but the words “sensitive subgroups,” which includes children, have been deleted from the regulation. Tennessee is home to eight coal-fired power plants and a total of 44 coal ash ponds owned and managed by the Tennessee Valley Authority. 

More information is available at earthjustice.org.

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