The EPA Just Made Toxic Coal Ash More Dangerous

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A giant wave of pollution glop in 2008 convinced the EPA to regulate coal dumps more closely. But the Trump administration is changing that.

Imagine a giant dropped a bucket of gray sludge the size of a pond. The bucket tipped over, and a six-foot-high wave of sludge spilled into the Tennessee countryside. As it rolled, it buried porches, broke down trees, snapped power lines and shot fish out of the river. It pushed one house completely off its foundation.

The sludge, of course, didn't really come from a giant. It came from a coal-powered power plant down the road.

Combusting coal makes fly ash, a pollutant full of arsenic, lead, mercury and other toxic metals. The plant had mixed the ash with water and stored it away.

The toxic sludge was supposed to stay there. But in 2008, there was a leak, and 1.1 billion gallons of pollution sludge (not just polluted sludge, but sludge literally made out of pollution) gushed out of its cage, caught a ride down a river, and started rolling into neighborhoods. When it was all said and done, sludge covered 300 acres of the countryside.

Afterward, the EPA created some new regulations to close down problematic ash dumps. Now, the Trump Administration is taking away those regulations. In an effort that the administration says will help the coal industry, state regulators can now opt to ignore water quality standards.

“It’s not like EPA has granted us free pass here," said James Roewer, the executive director of a utility company that has been lobbying for this deregulation.

Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist and (naturally) the EPA's current acting administrator says that this change will save utilities $30 million a year. Incidentally, cleaning up the Tennessee goop has cost over $1 billion so far. And hundreds of coal ash cleanup workers are claiming that the pollution has made them sick (and in some cases, taken lives). But don't worry; they're not leveling those charges at the power plants. The coal companies are doing just fine.