Toxic Spills Highlight Trump's Deregulation of Coal Plant Waste

(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 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.

“We continue to work on rule-making and these types of events will inform our work going forward,” the agency said in an email.

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.

The administration faces legal pressure in its efforts. A federal appeals court in August ruled that the coal ash rule put in place by President Barack Obama’s EPA in 2015 -- and weakened by the Trump administration a month earlier -- wasn’t strong enough. The court rebuked the EPA for failing to require the closing of unlined coal ash disposal sites and exempting legacy landfills at shuttered power plants from the mandates.

EPA officials have not announced how they will respond to the court’s ruling.

As long as coal ash slurry is sitting in ponds exposed to the elements, there’s a risk from storms and floods, activists argue.

“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.”

In North Carolina, Duke said that a coal byproduct known as cenospheres, tiny hollow beads comprised of alumina and silica, are flowing into the Cape Fear River, but that coal ash at the site “remains in place.” The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality said it has yet to ascertain if coal ash has entered the river.

“Cenospheres are part of coal ash,” said Avner Vengosh, a Duke University professor who specializes in geochemistry and water quality. “If we see them in the water, it means they’re mixed with coal ash.”

Matthew Starr, who works in North Carolina for the Waterkeeper Alliance environmental organization, said that at Duke Energy’s H.F. Lee plant in Goldsboro, North Carolina, floodwaters had inundated earthen coal ash dams, causing ash to flow into the Neuse River.

“We observed many many different places where coal ash was floating by us -- it was re-suspending in the water, it was laying on top of berms,” Starr said in an interview. “Everywhere we looked we kind of saw an impact. You’ve got a pretty large ongoing spill.”

After inspecting the H.F. Lee site Thursday, Duke said "only a small amount of coal ash has been displaced, similar to the impact in the wake of Hurricane Matthew." Crews will continue to monitor the situation, the company said.

River flooding has affected one of two "inactive" ash basins at Duke’s Sutton facility, according to Bridget Munger, a spokeswoman for the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality.

"While the state is currently in emergency response mode, a thorough investigation of events will soon follow to ensure that Duke Energy is held responsible for any environmental impacts caused at their coal ash facilities," Munger said in an email on Friday.

Other coal ash sites remain at risk. South Carolina’s state-owned utility, Santee Cooper, said it expects the Waccamaw River to overtop one of its coal ash ponds at its Grainger site, about 85 miles southwest in Conway, South Carolina. The company, which earlier installed an inflatable dam to protect the site, said it doesn’t anticipate any "significant environmental impact."

When coal ash spills, it can cause lasting damage.

The 2008 rupture of a dam at a Tennessee Valley Authority power plant in Harriman, Tennessee, unleashed more than 1 billion gallons of coal ash slurry, sending a wave of mud to smother nearby homes. Ten years later, testing is still being conducted in the region, and workers who helped clean up the disaster are suing, claiming they were sickened by cancer and other illnesses.

A similar scene played out in 2014, when some 39,000 tons of coal ash escaped from a burst drainage pipe at a Duke Energy pond in Eden, North Carolina, sending the slurry into the Dan River and causing visible gray water in a nearby reservoir within days.

The incidents prompted a call for federal regulation of coal ash disposal, resulting in the 2015 EPA rule. But even that Obama administration regulation fell far short of what activists and residents near coal ash ponds had wanted, including regulation of the material as a hazardous waste, which would limit storage options and could require it to be steered away from the nation’s waterways.

“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.”

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