EPA to scale back coal power plant rules

November 4, 2019

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced it would roll back regulations on how coal-fired power plants dispose of coal ash waste. The new rule will allow for extensions that could keep unlined coal ash waste ponds open for up to eight additional years and allow plants to discharge wastewater that captures the waste through a membrane system, though many plants would be exempt.

The rule relaxation comes as companies in the coal industry claimed in court that the current rules that was enacted in 2015 were unaffordable.
In a statement, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said the Obama-era rules “placed heavy burdens on electricity producers across the country.”
“These proposed revisions support the Trump administration’s commitment to responsible, reasonable regulations,” Wheeler said, “by taking a common-sense approach that will provide more certainty to U.S. industry while also protecting public health and the environment.”

The Washington Post reported that Trump administration officials revised the standards in response to recent court rulings, as well as to petitions from companies that said they could not afford to meet stringent requirements enacted under the Obama administration.

In 2018, power plants were slated to comply with the 2015 rule and close those coal ash ponds leaking contaminants into ground water that exceeded federal protection standards by April 2019. The Trump administration extended that deadline until October 2020 in a rule it finalized last year.

In August 2018, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit instructed the EPA to require that companies overhaul ponds, including those lined with clay and compacted soil, even if there was no evidence that sludge was leaking into ground water.

Under the new proposal, companies will have to stop placing coal ash into unlined storage ponds near waterways by Aug. 31, 2020, and either retrofit these sites to make them more secure or begin to close them. Unlike the Obama-era rules, the EPA will allow greater leeway and more time for operators to request extensions ranging from 90 days to three years, until Oct. 15, 2023, if they can persuade regulators that they need more time to properly dispose of the waste.

Moreover, if a company can demonstrate that it is shutting down a coal boiler, it can petition to keep its storage ponds open for as long as eight years, depending on their size. Slurry ponds smaller than 40 acres could get approval to stay in place until Oct. 15, 2023, officials said, while larger ones could remain open until Oct. 15, 2028.
 

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