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EPA announces plan to relax coal power plant waste rules

The Environmental Protection Agency on Monday proposed scaling back the requirements around storing and releasing waste from coal-fired power plants, despite also finding an increase in toxic leaks from waste pits.

The proposals would relax Obama-era rules from 2015 about the disposal of toxic wastewater and coal ash from the power plants. Coal ash, a mix of fine powder and sludge that is a by-product of burning coal, is commonly stored in pits and landfills. The wastewater can contain dangerous metals such as mercury and arsenic.

The proposals would reduce costs to plant operators at a time when the coal industry is struggling and the number of coal-fired power plants is declining. The Washington Post and The New York Times first reported the administration’s planned announcements.

The stricter 2015 regulations are becoming more expensive for operators, the Trump administration said, because it was discovered that “more surface impoundments regardless of liner type are leaking” compared to the Obama administration’s estimate four years ago.

Ninety-two percent of coal ash ponds are leaking, according to Lisa Evans of the environmental law organization Earthjustice, which opposes the proposals. “So much more harm is occurring than the Obama EPA expected,” Evans told CNN.

The Trump administration estimated the changes would save power plant operators around $215 million every year. It also said its changes to wastewater rules would result in fewer toxic discharges by allowing new methods of compliance, such as filtration systems. It also allow plants to use a membrane filtration system to filter wastewater and then release it.

The administration would allow operators to request extensions of deadlines in 2020 and give them an additional eight years to comply — until December 2028.

Environmental advocates raised concerns the rules would exempt certain plants from compliance.

“These rules are supposed to safeguard our water from toxic pollution, but the laundry list of loopholes proposed by the Trump EPA threatens to completely undo the protections,” said Thom Cmar, an attorney with Earthjustice.

In a statement, Abel Russ of the Environmental Integrity Project said, “This administration will stop at nothing to save the coal industry a few bucks.”

The rule relaxation comes as companies in the coal industry claimed in court that the current rules were unaffordable and as the Trump administration has taken a “pro-coal” stance.

This story has been updated with additional developments Monday.

CNN