(Bloomberg Opinion) -- To help some of the country’s dirtiest electric-power plants save a little money, the Environmental Protection Agency is willing to imperil the lives and health of Americans who live downstream from them. A new rule that relaxes restrictions on ash pollution is the latest effort by President Donald Trump’s administration to sustain coal power in the face of crushing competition from renewables. And like the others, it’s sure to prove ineffective, wasteful and hugely damaging to the environment.
The new action relaxes an Obama-administration effort to protect the water supply from mercury, arsenic, lead and other toxic components of coal ash. That rule had required plants to remove heavy metals from wastewater containing pollutants scrubbed from smokestacks, and to use dry disposal methods to deal with the “bottom ash” from boilers rather than wash it away. The revision — enacted under the EPA leadership of Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist — weakens the wastewater cleaning requirements and allows plants to continue to flush some bottom ash. It also extends compliance deadlines until the last day of 2025, or the end of 2028 for plants that voluntarily adopt improved pollution-control technologies or promise to close or switch to natural gas by then.
For the next eight years, in other words, coal ash will continue to be discharged into enormous, notoriously leaky holding pits and reservoirs, from which it will inevitably spill into rivers, streams and lakes, where the toxic metals will accumulate in fish and the ecosystem at large. Although it’s hard to predict exactly how much damage this toxic pollution will cause, it is known to cause cancer, respiratory illnesses, neurological disorders and other diseases.
Why take such an enormous risk? The EPA claims the revised rules will save the coal industry $140 million a year. That tradeoff would be hard enough to justify in its own right. But the agency doesn’t even estimate how much power companies, or taxpayers, will ultimately have to pay to clean up the damage. The Tennessee Valley Authority spent six years and more than $1 billion to clean up and compensate for a 2008 ash spill into the Emory River; three dozen workers died of cancer and other diseases contracted in the process.
This reform is all the more nonsensical because advances in treatment processes have made it easier than ever to discard coal ash more safely and to recycle the useful metals it contains. Nor will it do much to keep the coal industry alive. Bloomberg Green reports that coal, once the leading source of electricity in the U.S., is expected to provide just 18% of the total this year; it has long since been overtaken by natural gas and this year will be surpassed by renewable energy. Under Trump, the federal government has spent more than $1 billion trying to revive coal power — yet plants just continue to close.
Unfortunately, even after the last one is shuttered, coal ash will litter the American landscape for many years to come, menacing nature and threatening human health. Legal challenges may keep these revisions from taking effect immediately. But in the long run, the U.S. needs new management at the EPA that will place life and the environment above the interests of a dying industry.
Editorials are written by the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.
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