Chesapeake PSR

Fighting EPA's unlawful rollback of toxic coal waste standards

Climate Change and Energy, CoalTimothy WhitehouseComment

The Trump administration wants to allow coal power plants to continue dumping toxic waste into the nation’s waterways. A lawsuit filed by environmental and public health organizations - including Chesapeake Physicians for Social Responsibility (Chesapeake PSR) - challenging that action remains alive after motions filed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to dismiss the case.

In a late June ruling, U.S. District Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson denied the EPA’s request to dismiss the suit on grounds that the Washington, D.C., federal court lacks jurisdiction. The action was filed in May by Earthjustice on behalf of seven other plaintiff organizations. The Environmental Integrity Project is representing several plaintiffs, including Chesapeake PSR. Other plaintiffs in the case include the Sierra Club, Waterkeeper Alliance, Clean Water Action, PennEnvironment, Chesapeake Climate Action Network and Prairie Rivers Network.

Following a schedule set by Judge Jackson, EPA filed a cross-motion for summary judgment on July 28. An industry lobbying group that has intervened in the case also filed a cross-motion for summary judgment on July 28. Plaintiffs have until Aug. 28 to reply to those motions, and defendants and intervenors can then file further replies until Sept. 11.

Three days after Earth Day, Trump’s EPA essentially blocked wastewater safeguards – known as Effluent Limitation Guidelines (ELG) − designed to control the amount of arsenic, mercury, lead and other pollutants that coal plants and other steam electric power plants dump into waterways. EPA’s postponement of the ELGs allows the plants to go back to discharging toxics under standards set 35 years ago, said Earthjustice attorney Thomas Cmar.

“I don’t think anything considered state of the art in 1982 would still be state of the art today, especially when you are talking about the number one source of toxic water pollution in the country,” Cmar said.

Before halting the standards passed under the Obama administration to control the dumping of toxic waste, Trump’s EPA “didn’t even pretend to seek public input,” said Pete Harrison, an attorney for Waterkeeper Alliance. Power plants were slated to begin meeting the tougher protections in 2018, but EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt agreed to a coal industry request to put the rule on hold. As attorney general of Oklahoma, Pruitt sued the EPA himself more than a dozen times challenging certain regulations designed to protect public health and the environment.

The EPA under former President Barack Obama spent about six years investigating the impact of toxic discharges from power plants into waterways, said Sara Via, a biology and entomology professor at the University of Maryland, College Park and co-lead of Chesapeake PSR's Climate Health Action Team. Dr. Via was among those testifying on July 31 during a public hearing on the proposed halt of the ELG rule at EPA headquarters in Washington, D.C.

“The rationale for staying the rule’s implementation can only be that Mr. Pruitt would like to change the cost-benefit analysis,” Dr. Via said. “In his analysis, all the benefits should go the companies that can pump unlimited amounts of toxic pollutants into our freshwater, while all the costs fall on the ordinary Americans who are sickened by drinking or fishing in these polluted waters.”

In the 2015 ELG rule, the EPA documented the threat to public health caused by toxic discharges from power plants. “The companies that willfully dump these poisons into public water sources also know the dangers, yet they are unwilling to pay the modest costs of cleaning up the pollution they generate,” Dr. Via said. “What is truly shocking is that after the EPA documented the dangers of power plant effluent in its own report, Mr. Pruitt now just says essentially: ‘Never mind.’”

The modern pollution controls under the ELG would cost such plants only pennies a day, said Lisa Hallowell, a senior attorney for the Environmental Integrity Project. Meanwhile, the toxins in coal plant waste can increase cancer risk, make fish unsafe to eat, and lead to brain damage in children, public health advocates said. Heavy metals like lead, arsenic and mercury don’t degrade over time and can collect in people’s bodies.  

“Exposure can lead to problems, including cancer and neurotoxicity,” said Tim Whitehouse, executive director of Chesapeake PSR. “The EPA’s decision not to curb the release of these pollutants as quickly as possible is unjustifiable and dangerous.”

Update, September 2017: Sign our petition urging the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) to strengthen discharge standards on coal-fired power plants.

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