The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has rolled back part of the Obama-era rule that created federal standards for the disposal of coal ash.
EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler signed the rule that will ease some of the standards for how companies discard coal ash, the toxic substances left over from burning coal. The amendments include postponing some deadlines and giving states or the EPA more authority to waive some requirements.
It is the first major regulatory move by Wheeler, who took over earlier this month when former chief Scott Pruitt resigned under the cloud of numerous scandals.
The Hill reported that although Wheeler signed the rule, the regulatory process has been months in the making and the changes were proposed in March.
The EPA defended the new rules, saying that they will save as much as $31.4 million a year in avoided regulatory costs.
“These amendments provide states and utilities much-needed flexibility in the management of coal ash, while ensuring human health and the environment are protected,” Wheeler said in a statement.
“Our actions mark a significant departure from the one-size-fits-all policies of the past and save tens of millions of dollars in regulatory costs.”
Under the amendments made, states or the EPA will be allowed to waive requirements for monitoring ground water for potential leaching of coal ash under certain circumstances and to issue some certifications that previously had to come from professional engineers.
The EPA is also easing acceptable pollution standards for four substances in its ground water monitoring requirements for coal ash: cobalt, lithium, molybdenum and lead.
In addition, the EPA is extending deadlines by which companies have to stop putting additional ash in waste facilities if groundwater pollution spikes or if the waste facilities are too close to aquifers.
The 2015 rule was put in place to protect soil and water from coal ash, which contains concentrated levels of arsenic, lead, chromium and other harmful substances. It followed a number of high-profile disastrous coal ash spills, like in Kingston, TN, in 2008 and in Eden, NC, in 2014.
Environmental groups slammed the changes.
“In his first action as head of the EPA, Andrew Wheeler is giving his former clients in the coal industry a pass on having to clean up their toxic waste. So much for his promise to protect clean air and water,” Rebecca Hammer, deputy director for federal water policy at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a statement.
“This action means families across the nation will be exposed to greater risks of cancer and other illnesses.”
But utilities applauded the changes.
“Today’s action is a welcome step as EPA continues to revisit the 2015 [coal ash] regulation. By extending 2015 compliance deadlines, EPA is working to avoid unintended consequences while the agency updates the original rule to incorporate new regulatory authority provided by Congress,” said Jim Matheson, CEO of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.