WASHINGTON – The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump moved Monday to relax Barack Obama-era limits on coal plants discharging ash- and metal-contaminated waste into waterways, the latest in a series of administration breaks for the lagging American coal industry and for utilities using coal-fired power plants.
Environmental Protection Agency administrator Andrew Wheeler signed the proposal, which would ease parts of a 2015 Obama rule that was meant to limit power plant discharges of wastewater laden with toxic coal ash and heavy metals, including arsenic, mercury and selenium.
Monday’s change would loosen some of the requirements for cleaning up the waste streams from coal-fired power plants and give utilities another two years to comply with some of the rules.
The Trump EPA says the relaxed rule will save $175 million annually in compliance costs and contends that discharge of toxic contaminants into rivers, streams and creeks would actually go down, owing to what it says will be increased, voluntary wastewater clean-ups by utilities.
The rewrite serves to “insert a grab bag of loopholes into what had been a strong national set of health protections,” said Thomas Cmar, attorney for the coal program of the environmental advocacy group Earthjustice. It’s “allowing the power industry to continue dumping toxic contaminants in our waterways at the expense of public health.”
The U.S. coal industry, and utilities owning coal-fired power plants, are suffering in the face of market competition as natural gas and climate-friendly wind and solar power become dramatically cheaper. Coal industry figures including Robert Murray, an influential Trump supporter whose Murray Energy filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection last week amid the decline of U.S. coal production, have sought and received a series of regulatory breaks from the administration.
That includes Trump’s scrapping of one of former President Obama’s legacy efforts against climate-damaging fossil fuel — a program meant to slowly push dirtier-burning coal plants out of the country’s electric power system.