Trump’s EPA Rolling Back Obama-Era Anti-Coal Regulation

The Environmental Protection Agency will propose easing rules on disposal of coal ash, the residue from burning coal, to make it less likely the federal government would shutter a coal-fired utility plant, in an announcement set for Monday.

The move is part of what has been a larger deregulation push by the Trump administration to roll back strict Obama-era regulations that the industry viewed as the previous administration’s “war on coal,” that pushed to shut down many coal-fired power plants. 

“The EPA is no longer picking winners and losers in electric generation,” Peter Wright, assistant administrator for EPA Office of Land and Emergency Management, told reporters in a conference call Friday.

Coal ash is frequently recycled, and used as material for wallboard and concrete. Thus, according to the EPA, the rule could provide more resources for building the nation’s highways and for agricultural purposes. Coal ash reuse also conserves natural resources and provides viable alternatives to disposal, the agency contends.  

“This demonstrates our support for reuse of coal ash,” Wright said.

More than 500 units at approximately 260 coal-fired facilities may be impacted by Monday’s proposed rule, according to the EPA. 

In 2015, the Obama administration’s EPA imposed a regulation for disposal in landfills and impoundments of coal ash, specifying inspection, monitoring, record keeping and reporting requirements.

However, in 2018, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit threw out certain provisions of EPA’s 2015 final rule and remanded it back to the agency. 

To respond to the court’s ruling, the Trump administration proposed amendments to the closure provisions in the 2015 regulations for the disposal of coal ash. 

The EPA notes the new rule has the environmental benefit of reducing coal ash disposal in already crowded landfills. Almost two-thirds, or 64%, of coal ash produced in 2017 was recycled, the third consecutive year that more than half of coal ash in the United States was recycled. 

The agency says the revisions have the economic benefits of increased revenue from the sale of coal ash, and savings from using coal ash in place of other more costly materials. 

Most of the 2015 rule remains in place and the implementation is on schedule with regards to monitoring of groundwater and public reporting data, according to the EPA. 

Last year, the agency approved Oklahoma’s coal ash program. It has proposed certifying Georgia’s plan, which is still awaiting final approval.

The EPA has also been in discussions with about 20 states, which represent approximately 70% of surface impoundments. Wright said these states in discussion with the agency are largely in the Midwest and Southeast. 

Congress passed the 2016 Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act, which among other things, gave states the authority to operate coal ash management permit programs in lieu of the federal requirements, so long as the EPA determines that the state’s requirements are as protective as the federal standards.

The EPA classified coal ash as solid waste, which makes it subject to more flexible regulations than hazardous waste.

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