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Overturning regulatory protections for ground and surface waters


The “Specimen 6” painting in last year’s Fletcher Exhibit at the Reece Museum showed a Virginia artist’s conception about animals – crayfish and mussels, snails, turtles, darters, salamanders and myriad others – which suffer ongoing pollution in our water bodies and can get killed in vast numbers when catastrophic spill events occur. The frog she portrayed, suffocating in gray sludge, was among the river creatures killed when tons of coal ash from a power plant poured into the Dan River in North Carolina, in 2014.

The nation’s worst such spill, at the Tennessee Valley Authority Kingston plant in 2007, demonstrates the coal ash hazard for humans, especially if directly exposed. Resulting from cleanup of that site, there now are “180 new cases of dead or dying coal ash spill workers,” the USA Today Network reported on March 28.

Typically stored in wet ponds of which close to half have no liners, hazardous chemicals and carcinogenic substances in the ash can seep into groundwater, threatening drinking-water safety. Nationwide, cancer risk is high for people living near one of more than thousand ash impoundments, and children particularly face danger of developing asthma, learning disabilities, cancer or other serious problems.

In 2012, a government study estimated that the damage to fish and wildlife, at just 21 ash-disposal sites, came at a cost of more than $2.3 billion.

All-too-many media reports – some samples below – should alert us to the lurking public-health and environmental threats from hundreds of poorly maintained coal-waste sites:

“Near many of Indiana’s coal fired power plants, the ground water is a toxic mix of arsenic, boron, cobalt, lead, molybdenum, radium and thallium” – IndyStar, March 28 – coal ash contaminants there being at levels 40 times above safe drinking water standards. “Coal ash pollution threatens groundwater at western Kentucky power plant” – National Public Radio, April 10, 207 – arsenic levels “nearly 1,000 times the federal standard” being found there. “Toxic coal ash (is) seeping into Illinois’ only national scenic river” – Chicago Tribune, April 10.

Late under the Obama administration, following more than a decade of rising concern about inadequate safety in storage and disposal, the Environmental Protection Agency issued two coal-ash rules strengthening the federal standards. With the Trump administration seemingly intent on propping up coal, however, the utility industry promptly called for rollbacks to the “burdensome, inflexible, and often impracticable” rules and Administrator Pruitt, equally promptly, granted its petition to have these deferred and re-reviewed.

In a proposed “Overhaul” on which the EPA is seeking public input, a “spate of changes” to the 2015 Coal Ash Rule would gut groundwater protection and monitoring requirements.

Various other “flexibility” options for states, or industry operators themselves, to determine need or type of “alternate” cleanup, ash-pond closure, contamination-control or other measures promise savings to the industry of “between $32 million and $100 million per year.”

Water is the source of life. For the artist portraying threatened aquatic wildlife, for citizens fearing the safety of water supplies being compromised, the proposed overturning of regulatory coal-waste protections is an ominous and unwelcome development in Washington.