Trump's Plan to Weaken Coal Ash Rules Will Endanger Our Communities and Violate the Law

Coal ash pollution from Kingston fossil plant spill in 2008
Coal ash pollution from spill at Kingston Fossil Plant in Roane, Tennessee, December 2008. Photo by Brian Stansberry.

In 2015, the EPA established the first-ever federal regulations governing the disposal of coal combustion residuals--the primary waste generated at coal-burning power plants, known commonly as coal ash. Those regulations were only finalized after decades of delay and after Sierra Club and allies sued and secured a federal court order requiring EPA to take action on coal ash regulation by a date certain.

Although modest, the 2015 rule provides critical and long-overdue protections for vulnerable communities living near coal ash dumps, for our air, and for our nation’s waters. Among other requirements, the rule requires that groundwater at coal ash disposal sites be monitored and that, if contamination is detected, that the pollution be cleaned up. Already, initial results of groundwater monitoring have revealed widespread contamination. Sierra Club and allied groups reviewed data for about 100 sites and found unsafe levels of arsenic, cobalt, lithium, and sulfate at most sites and unsafe levels of radioactivity at one in five sites.

Nevertheless, the Trump EPA has ignored this new evidence--not to mention the detailed record supporting the 2015 rule--and is proposing changes that would radically weaken the rule. All changes, save one, were made at the behest of industry groups that, in a blatant attempt at a second bite at the apple, filed petitions for reconsideration soon after the 2017 Presidential Inauguration. The proposal includes a series of broad loopholes that would eviscerate the 2015 rule and thwart the key justification for its adoption--namely, that the lack of national minimum standards for the disposal of coal ash encouraged a “race to the bottom” and resulted in more than a thousand unsafe disposal units that continue to threaten public health and the environment and which disproportionately injure low-income communities and communities of color.

EPA hearing on CCR rule in April 2018
Hearing in Washington, D.C., in April 2018 on the EPA's proposal to amend the Coal Combustion Residuals (CCR) Rule.

The Sierra Club and our coalition partners have submitted comprehensive legal and technical comments that identify the fatal flaws of the Trump EPA proposal and show why the proposed changes are unreasonable, unsupported, and fail to satisfy the protectiveness standard set forth in Section 4004(a) of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), which requires EPA to ensure that there is “no reasonable probability of adverse effects on health or the environment.”

We have recommended that EPA withdraw its reckless and misguided proposal, but, if the Agency finalizes anything close to its current proposal, Administrator Pruitt should expect to see us in court.