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EPA Unveils Plan to Relax Rules on Coal Power Plant Waste (1)

Nov. 4, 2019, 3:48 PMUpdated: Nov. 4, 2019, 8:49 PM

The EPA wants to relax waste standards for coal-fired power plants, a rollback of Obama-era regulations on water pollution and waste management that could help struggling coal plants stay in operation.

The Nov. 4 proposal would roll back an Obama administration regulation outlining the types of technology that coal-fired power plants must use to capture and treat the wastewater that flows out of their facilities.

The agency is also proposing giving those power plants options to delay the closure of coal ash ponds and landfills, giving them more time to dump additional waste.


Although adopted in 2015, several parts of the Obama-era power plant wastewater regulation never went into effect.

They were supposed to become binding on the power industry in late 2018, but then-EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt delayed the compliance deadlines by two years in the Obama administration’s regulation.

Pruitt’s successor, Andrew Wheeler, is going further and revising the regulations to make them less costly for older coal plants to retrofit their waste effluent systems (RIN: 2040-AF77). Specifically, the regulations would give power plants more flexibility on which wastewater technology they can use and allow these plants to phase in this technology over a longer period of time.

“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,” Wheeler said in a statement.

Betsy Southerland, a former EPA water official who worked on the 2015 regulations, said the Trump administration’s moves here are an attempt to prolong the life of older plants that haven’t already retrofitted their facilities with new pollution capture technology.

“It just seems like they’re going to do everything they can to give every possible break to these coal-fired power plants,” said Southerland, who resigned shortly after President Donald Trump took office.

Coal Ash

Coal combustion residuals, or coal ash, are the waste generated by coal-fired power plants.

Coal ash contains metals such as arsenic, chromium, and mercury that pose risks to public health and the environment, especially if they spill into water supplies. Environmental groups have argued that allowing utilities more time to dump coal ash, instead of removing it, increases the chance of a leak or spill.

“We thank EPA for recognizing the technical challenges of meeting the deadline and for including in the proposal mechanisms for site-specific deadline extension,” Jim Roewer, executive director of the Utility Solid Waste Activities Group, said in an emailed statement. The group represents power utilities on coal ash issues.

The EPA is rewriting its 2015 coal ash disposal rule after environmental and industry groups challenged the rule in court (RIN: 2050-AH10).

“The laundry list of loopholes proposed by the Trump EPA threatens to completely undo the protections” of the 2015 rule, Thomas Cmar, deputy managing attorney of Earthjustice’s coal program, said in an emailed statement.

The EPA’s proposal would update the 2015 rule to abide by changes mandated by the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. Coal ash disposal sites that have clay-lined pits would be considered the same as pits that have no protective lining. The EPA is proposing moving the deadline for unlined pits to stop accepting waste, from October 2020 to August 2020. The majority of coal ash disposal sites that fall under EPA’s regulation are unlined, according to the agency.

But other types of coal ash disposal sites would get more time before they’re mandated to close, according to the EPA’s proposal. The proposal would “decrease costs by extending certain existing compliance deadlines,” the agency said. It will be open for public comment once published in the Federal Register.

—With assistance from Jennifer A. Dlouhy (Bloomberg News).

(Updated with more reporting throughout.)

To contact the reporters on this story: David Schultz in Washington at; Sylvia Carignan in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at; Rob Tricchinelli at; Renee Schoof at