The premise underlying nearly a half century of U.S. environmental law is that no one has a right to poison the air and water that all Americans consume. Under Scott Pruitt’s direction, the Environmental Protection Agency seems just fine with increasing Americans’ exposure to industrial toxins as long as it fulfills President Donald Trump’s promise to revive the nation’s moribund coal industry.
The EPA proposes to loosen pollution restrictions on coal-burning utilities that produce a contaminant known as coal ash. The EPA says coal ash is one of the largest industrial waste streams generated in the United States. It is produced primarily by coal-fired power plants and contains a cancer-causing, toxic mix of arsenic, mercury, cadmium and other heavy metals.
Coal-burning utilities produce an estimated 110 million tons of coal ash annually, storing it in giant pits. One former EPA top official has described the storage pits as “ticking time bombs.”
Guidelines for the EPA’s proposed changes, issued Aug. 15, included requirements for states seeking to deviate from federal coal ash rules to come up with specifically designed policies. Watchdog groups say the standards are too loose, too utility-friendly and will permit states to weaken regulatory enforcement below federal standards.
In his plan to pare back regulatory oversight, Pruitt suggested that protecting public health is not his primary concern. “As part of EPA’s ongoing commitment to cooperative federalism, we continue to consult with our state partners to find the best management strategy for the safe disposal of coal ash in each of their states,” he said.
The EPA is well aware of the potential public health dangers and says that improperly built or managed coal ash disposal units have been linked to surface, ground water and air contamination. Major coal ash spills near Kingston, Tenn., in 2009, and Eden, N.C., in 2014, highlighted the need for federal oversight. The spills caused widespread environmental and economic damage.
Regulation of coal ash falls squarely in the federal government’s regulatory domain because contaminated air and water are not restricted to a single state’s boundaries. One state’s loose controls very often mean that neighboring states suffer the consequences, and watchdog groups say state regulators typically are more lenient. Easing regulations to improve the business climate is a short-sighted policy. The EPA needs to listen to public concerns. It may learn something.