Coal Ash Redux

The line from The Who’s classic rock song, “Won’t Get Fooled Again” that says “meet the new boss, same as the old boss” is never so true as at the EPA.  Rejoicing over the departure of Scott Pruitt may have been warranted in terms of his multitude of ethical lapses, but the new Acting Administrator is cut from exactly the same policy cloth. Andrew Wheeler, who was Pruitt’s Deputy, was a longtime lobbyist for Murray Energy, a large and powerful coal company.  He also served on the staff of Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), a well-known climate change denier who infamously “proved” that climate change wasn’t happening by bringing a snowball onto the floor of the Senate.

When Wheeler was recently designated Acting Administrator, he gave pretty speeches about being “transparent” and promoting realistic environmental regulations.  Although his conduct may not be egregious like Pruitt’s, he is perhaps more dangerous in that he is experienced in the ways of government, and knows how to maneuver around Capitol Hill.  Unlike the old boss, he knows how to avoid big PR disasters.

In April, Pruitt issued a draft regulation loosening safety requirements for coal ash storage.  Coal ash is a byproduct of burning coal, and is typically stored as a slurry in holding ponds at about 400 coal-fired power plants.  The slurry is a nightmare combination of heavy metals like cobalt, lead, cadmium, and other toxins like arsenic. There have been two major spills of this toxic sludge in the last decade, in Tennessee and North Carolina, that polluted each area’s drinking water.  Pruitt’s proposed regulation would have loosened the requirements for Federal inspection of storage ponds for possible leaks, risks of dam failure, and for the presence of these chemicals in surrounding ground water. Pruitt was forced to withdraw the proposal when environmental activists discovered that it was based not on scientific evidence, but on a four-page document from an industry trade group.

However, the new boss has just introduced (on July 17th) basically the same proposal to allow states to set their own standards, and to scale back monitoring requirements.[1]  The industry is delighted, as this will save between $28 million and $31 million per year in compliance costs. The industry’s own data shows, however, that many of the existing coal ash ponds are already leaking. What will this cost in terms of public health expense?  What will the next catastrophic spill cost? How reliable is state regulation and inspection in light of the Flint water crisis? It is interesting to note that Murray Energy has been a prime mover in pushing for relaxation of coal ash regulations.

–Jean Stewart, Chair, Earth and Environment Task Force