Aerial view of coal byproduct spilling over Sutton cooling lake into the Cape Fear River after flooding from Hurricane Forence. Photo: Duke Energy / Bloomberg

By Ari Natter and Jennifer A Dlouhy
21 September 2018

(Bloomberg) – The breach of a pond used to store coal ash in North Carolina has revived criticism of the Trump administration’s efforts to loosen restrictions on how power plants dispose of the toxic waste.

The Environmental Protection Agency in July relaxed Obama administration requirements that forced companies to keep a closer watch on coal ash disposal sites and their potential groundwater contamination -- and signaled further revisions sought by industry are coming.

“The rollbacks by the Trump administration make these kinds of risks more likely and more dangerous,” said John Rumpler, clean water program director for advocacy group Environment America.

Duke Energy Corp. said Friday that floodwaters from Hurricane Florence had overwhelmed a coal ash basin at a its Sutton power plant in Wilmington, North Carolina, raising the possibility the material had spilled into the Cape Fear River.

The Obama-era regulation, put in place after several spills including one in North Carolina, wouldn’t prevent coal ash from pouring into the river. But environmentalists say the Trump administration’s changes will prolong the lives of those toxic waste sites and increase the risk of spills.

More than 100 million tons of coal ash are generated each year from about 400 power plants across the country. When stored in disposal ponds, such as the one compromised in North Carolina, it is a toxic slurry teeming with mercury, arsenic, lead and chromium -- substances that can cause irreversible brain damage, cancer and other diseases.

“We’ve had a coal ash issue for just as long as we’ve been burning coal, and we haven’t addressed it,” said Dalal Aboulhosn, deputy legislative director at the Sierra Club. “We went decades and decades just closing our eyes and ignoring this problem of what the byproduct of burning coal was doing to these communities living next to these sites.”

The Trump EPA’s July overhaul effectively added a year of usable life to some existing coal ash ponds, while also giving utilities and states more flexibility in deciding when they have to be cleaned up. Under the newly updated rule, state regulators can suspend groundwater monitoring requirements for some coal ash disposal sites and are empowered to certify whether the facilities are adequate.

The EPA estimated the changes would spare power producers as much as $31 million a year.

And more changes are coming. The EPA, headed by an interim director who once lobbied for a coal company, has telegraphed that it is working on a second wave of rewrites to federal coal ash mandates. The agency has signaled its next move may be to give states more authority in regulating the substance, Rumpler said. […]

“There’s nothing to prevent these things from failing in a huge storm event, if they are exposed to the elements, which just underscores why they shouldn’t be there in the first place,” said Jennifer Peters, water programs director with the advocacy group Clean Water Action. “And we shouldn’t have to wait until there’s a disaster like Florence to be talking about it.” […]

“We’ve known these coal ash pits are disasters waiting to happen for a long time,” said Drew Ball, director of the environmental group Environment North Carolina. “And now we have a flood of this magnitude forcing us to recognize the dangers of that.” [more]

Toxic Spills Highlight Trump's Deregulation of Coal Plant Waste

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