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EPA to rescind 2015 rule limiting power plants’ discharges of toxic metals

Pumps were used to keep a coal ash pit from flooding in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence in Conway, S.C., in 2018.
Pumps were used to keep a coal ash pit from flooding in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence in Conway, S.C., in 2018. Tamir Kalifa/New York Times/File 2018

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration plans to roll back an Obama-era regulation that was designed to limit dangerous heavy metals like arsenic, lead, and mercury from coal-fired power plants, according to two people familiar with the plans.

With a series of new rules expected in November, the Environmental Protection Agency will move to weaken the 2015 regulation by relaxing some of the requirements on power generators and exempting a significant number of power plants from even those weakened requirements.

The effort was designed to extend the life of old, coal-fired power plants that have been shutting down in the face of competition from cheaper natural gas and renewable energy. Environmental groups warned that the move could lead to health problems caused by contaminated drinking water, including birth defects, cancer, and stunted brain development in young children.

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Am EPA spokesman did not respond to a request for comment. Agency officials held a conference call Tuesday with supporters of the Trump administration’s deregulatory efforts to discuss the measure, multiple people on the call confirmed.

The move is part of a series of efforts by the Trump administration to relax restrictions on coal-fired power plants and promote the construction of new ones, even as market forces continue the industry’s decline and scientific evidence mounts about the need to reduce fossil fuel use to avert catastrophic climate change.

Myron Ebell, who heads the energy program at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, an industry-funded research organization, described the Obama-era measure as part of an effort to “kill coal” and said the proposed rollback would give utilities more flexibility.

“It was a backdoor way to force utilities to close coal-fired power plants because they had no way of disposing of coal ash,” he said. “This is an important step toward putting the various sources of electricity back on a more level playing field.”

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Coal ash is the residue produced from burning coal. Each year, power plants produce about 130 million tons of coal ash, which is stored at about 1,100 sites across the country.

In recent years, spills and leaks of coal ash have fouled rivers and endangered wildlife, bringing national attention to the issue. The Obama-era rule came partially in response to a 2008 disaster in Tennessee when a containment pond ruptured at the Kingston Fossil Plant. More than 1.1 billion gallons of coal ash slurry spilled into nearby rivers and destroyed homes.

In 2014, a broken pipe spilled millions of gallons of liquefied coal ash from a retired power plant into North Carolina’s Dan River. It turned the water into dark sludge and threatened drinking water supplies. The electric utility Duke Energy later agreed to pay a $6 million fine for violating water protection laws during and after the disaster. The spill also spurred passage of a state law in North Carolina that requires all coal ash storage ponds to be closed by 2029.

According to the EPA, about 1.1 million Americans live within three miles of a coal plant that discharges pollutants into a public waterway. The 2015 rule set deadlines for power plants to invest in modern wastewater treatment technology to keep toxic pollution out of waterways. The regulation also required them to monitor local water quality and make more information publicly available. The Obama administration estimated the regulations would stop about 1.4 billion pounds of toxic metals and other pollutants from entering rivers and streams.

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But the rule would have also raised the cost of operating the plants, further endangering their economic viability.

One person familiar with the EPA’s current plans said the agency intended to say that the new rule would remove more pollutants than the Obama-era regulation. That assertion is based on an analysis that assumes about 30 percent of power plants will voluntarily choose to install more stringent technology.

The new rule also would confine the areas that utilities must measure for leakage, according to a second person familiar with the plans.

Power plants were originally required to start complying with the requirements by as early as November 2018, but Scott Pruitt, President Trump’s first EPA administrator, postponed compliance until 2020, saying the agency was providing “relief” to utilities as it reviewed the rule.

Environmental groups have challenged that delay and said they would also challenge the rollback.