Another Coal Ash Rollback, Another Bogus "Hearing"

NRDC testified at an EPA "virtual" hearing on its latest proposal to weaken safety standards for facilities where toxic coal ash is stored.
Coal Ash pond at Buck Steam Station, NC. Photo: Les Stone/Greenpeace

Yesterday, I testified at an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) hearing on its latest proposal to weaken safety standards for facilities where toxic coal ash is stored. But I couldn’t see the EPA officials to whom I was speaking. Nor could they see me.

They couldn’t assess my body language or facial expressions. They couldn’t see other members of the public expressing their views through the use of posters or T-shirts, as many people did at October’s in-person hearing on another related proposal. There were no news cameras there to report on turnout or the reactions of agency staff. No opportunity was provided for dialogue or questions.

That’s because the hearing took place online. The agency denied a written request by 87 organizations for a public, in-person hearing. Instead, everyone who wanted to comment on the proposal had to speak into their phones or computers, so that EPA staff could sit in a room in their DC headquarters listening to our disembodied voices.

The administration is hiding from the public, plain and simple, because the agency officials behind this proposal know that what they are doing is wrong, because they know how deeply unpopular it is with the American people, and because they do not respect our voices enough to bother hearing us face-to-face.

“Virtual hearings” like this one are becoming the EPA’s default method of carrying out public participation requirements—the agency held one last month on a different proposed rollback of water pollution standards for power plants. This trend is part and parcel of the administration’s attempt to stymie public opposition to its anti-environmental agenda.

So is its decision to weaken federal coal ash safety standards in so many different rulemaking actions that citizens can’t even fully understand the combined impact of what the Trump EPA is doing.

Coal ash, the toxic remains of burning coal at power plants, is one of the nation’s largest industrial waste streams. It is full of chemicals that cause cancer, developmental disorders, and reproductive problems. Across the country, coal ash poisons our water and kills fish and wildlife.

A landmark rule in 2015 established the first-ever federal safety standards for this dangerous waste. But in response to coal industry lobbying, the Trump administration is working to undo that rule piece by piece.

The particular proposal on which I testified yesterday would extend closure deadlines by several years for permanent coal ash disposal facilities that are unlined, known to be leaking into groundwater, and/or sited in dangerous locations.

It follows on the heels of a proposal last fall to weaken safety standards for temporary coal ash storage piles and the use of coal ash as fill material in construction projects.

Before that, the EPA finalized yet another rule change that weakened drinking water protection standards for hazardous chemicals found in coal ash, allowed states to waive groundwater testing requirements, and weakened procedures for states to issue technical safety certifications for disposal facilities.

And there’s at least one more on the way: it’s been reported that EPA will soon release yet another proposal to allow unlined coal ash pits meeting certain criteria to continue to operate—modifying the very same proposed closure requirements that I just testified about yesterday.

This entire process, with its piecemeal approach and lack of transparency, is ridiculous and underhanded. It puts the public at a clear disadvantage in evaluating the effects of each individual proposal—though it’s clear that what the administration is doing is actively harmful to our health and the environment.

You can read my full testimony from yesterday below, and if you want to weigh in yourself, the public comment docket is open until January 31. You can submit written comments here.

Testimony for Coal Ash “Part A” Rollback Hearing – January 7, 2020

My name is Rebecca Hammer and I’m testifying on behalf of the Natural Resources Defense Council. NRDC strongly opposes this regulatory proposal, which prioritizes polluter profits over public health and our country’s natural resources.

Unlined coal ash ponds are the most dangerous way to dispose of coal ash, especially given how close most of them are located to groundwater supplies. Monitoring results show that 92 percent of coal ash ponds, at hundreds of sites across the nation, are contaminating groundwater above federal health standards with some of the most toxic chemicals on earth. They’re also vulnerable to catastrophic events like spills and collapses which can destroy communities and poison lakes and rivers that are sources of drinking water.

These dangerous ponds disproportionately affect low-income communities and communities of color. This disproportionate impact is an injustice that directly harms people’s health and livelihoods.

It was for all of these reasons that the 2015 coal ash rule set closure deadlines—mandating that leaking ponds and those in dangerous locations would have to close by April 2019.

It would be outrageous to allow these facilities to remain operational for extended periods of time, as this proposal would do. That extension would mean millions of tons more toxic ash being dumped into pits that we know are leaking or sited in hazardous locations. In fact, EPA’s own record for this proposal shows that over 200 leaking coal ash ponds would be allowed to keep contaminating groundwater for years.

There is no rational justification for endangering the public in this way. Industry has had ample time and notice to start adopting safe disposal methods. EPA should not extend the operating life of these ponds just to help utilities save money.

After all, an appeals court already found that the 2015 rule was unlawful because it was not proactive enough in requiring coal ash facilities to close. This is especially true given that, as EPA itself now admits, a greater number of facilities are leaking than EPA originally estimated during the 2015 rulemaking. Yet EPA has arbitrarily and capriciously refused to conduct a new risk assessment in connection with this proposal to let those facilities keep operating.

Not only are EPA’s proposed deadlines too far in the future to protect communities from harm, the agency has entirely failed to address the appeals court’s ruling that contamination at more than 100 legacy ponds (at retired coal plants) must be addressed as well. This is a serious and potentially deadly omission that the agency must correct immediately.

Finally, it is a mockery of the public rulemaking process for the agency to refuse to hold any in-person hearings on this proposal, despite widespread calls for it to do so. This decision is shameful and a violation of RCRA’s public participation requirements. We reiterate our call for EPA to hold a true public hearing on the proposal without delay.

Thank you for considering our comments.