Category Archives: Federal Regulation (U.S.)

EPA rule change: power plants can dump fine powder, sludge and contaminated water

EPA to scale back federal rules restricting waste from coal-fired power plants

Agency chief Andrew Wheeler argues that Obama-era rules ‘placed heavy burdens on electricity producers.’ Critics call the changes unwarranted and potentially dangerous.
The American Electric Power coal-burning plant in Conesville, Ohio.  (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
The American Electric Power coal-burning plant in Conesville, Ohio. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

The Environmental Protection Agency on Monday plans to relax rules that govern how power plants store waste from burning coal and release water containing toxic metals into nearby waterways, according to agency officials.

The proposals, which scale back two rules adopted in 2015, affect the disposal of fine powder and sludge known as coal ash, as well as contaminated water that power plants produce while burning coal. Both forms of waste can contain mercury, arsenic and other heavy metals that pose risks to human health and the environment.

The new rules would allow extensions that could keep unlined coal ash waste ponds open for as long as eight additional years. The biggest benefits from the rule governing contaminated wastewater would come from the voluntary use of new filtration technology.

Trump administration officials revised the standards in response to recent court rulings and to petitions from companies that said they could not afford to meet stringent requirements enacted under the Obama administration. They also reflect President Trump’s broader goal of bolstering America’s coal industry at a time when natural gas and renewable energy provide more affordable sources of electricity for consumers.

Under the Obama-era rule, coal ash ponds leaking contaminants into groundwater that exceeded federal protection standards had to close by April 2019. The Trump administration extended that deadline to October 2020 in a rule it finalized last year.

In August 2018, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit instructed the EPA to require that companies overhaul ponds, including those lined with clay and compacted soil, even if there was no evidence that sludge was leaking into groundwater.

In a statement, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said the Obama-era rules “placed heavy burdens on electricity producers across the country.”

“These proposed revisions support the Trump administration’s commitment to responsible, reasonable regulations,” Wheeler said, “by taking a common-sense approach that will provide more certainty to U.S. industry while also protecting public health and the environment.”

Under the new proposal, companies will have to stop placing coal ash into unlined storage ponds near waterways by Aug. 31, 2020, and either retrofit these sites to make them more secure or begin to close them. Unlike the Obama-era rules, the EPA will allow greater leeway and more time for operators to request extensions ranging from 90 days to three years, until Oct. 15, 2023, if they can convince regulators that they need more time to properly dispose of the waste.

Moreover, if a company can demonstrate it is shutting down a coal boiler, it can petition to keep its storage ponds open for as long as eight years, depending on their size. Slurry ponds smaller than 40 acres could get approval to stay in place until Oct. 15, 2023, officials said, while larger ones could remain open until Oct. 15, 2028.

In a phone interview Sunday, American Public Power Association general counsel Delia Patterson said the proposed rules reflect the fact that it can take time to design, permit and construct new facilities that can pass muster.

“I think the EPA is actually acknowledging the reality of the situation. It’s just really not in anyone’s interest to rush this,” said Patterson, whose group represents publicly owned utilities that provide 15 percent of the nation’s electricity.

Environmentalists have sharply criticized the proposals, arguing that these containment sites pose serious risks to the public at a time when more frequent and intense flooding, fueled in part by climate change, could destabilize them and contaminate drinking water supplies that serve millions of people. The rules will be subject to public comment for 60 days.

During the past decade, Tennessee and North Carolina have experienced major coal ash spills that have destroyed homes and contaminated rivers, resulting in sickened cleanup workers and extensive lawsuits.

The question of how to handle coal waste, which is stored in roughly 450 sites across the country, has vexed regulators for decades. The Obama administration negotiated for years with environmental groups, electric utilities and other affected industries about how to address the waste, which can poison wildlife and poses health risks to people living near storage sites.

Lisa Evans, an attorney specializing in hazardous waste litigation for the environmental group Earthjustice, said allowing the electric industry to extend the life of coal ash pits represents a particular threat to low-income and minority Americans, who often live near such installations.

“Allowing plants to continue to dump toxic waste into leaking coal ash ponds for another 10 years will cause irreversible damage to drinking water sources, human health and the nation’s waters,” Evans said in an email. It was not surprising, she added, that the coal industry had lobbied against closing these storage sites. “Operating ponds is cheap. Closing them costs the utilities money,” she said.

It is also likely to add to consumers’ costs. Last year, for example, a member of the Virginia State Corporation Commission estimated it could cost ratepayers as much as $3.30 a month over 20 years — between $2.4 billion and $5.6 billion — to clean up Virginia-based Dominion Energy’s 11 coal ash ponds and six coal ash landfills in the state.

The EPA’s proposals will retain several of the monitoring and public disclosure standards put in place in 2015, officials said, requiring companies to monitor nearby groundwater, publicly report the data and address any leaks that pollute area waterways. The “vast majority” of slurry ponds “are on the road to closure” under the new rule, an EPA official said.

Using monitoring data disclosed for the first time under the 2015 rule, a report published jointly earlier this year by the Environmental Integrity Project and Earthjustice found 91 percent of the nation’s coal-fired power plants reported elevated levels of contaminants such as arsenic, lithium, chromium and other pollutants in nearby groundwater.

The vast majority of ponds and landfills holding coal waste at hundreds of power plants across the country have leaked toxic chemicals into nearby groundwater at facilities from Texas to Pennsylvania to Maryland, according to that analysis. The report acknowledged, however, that the groundwater data alone does not prove drinking-water supplies near the coal waste facilities have been contaminated. Power companies are not routinely required to test nearby drinking water wells. “So the scope of the threat is largely undefined,” the report stated.

The EPA on Monday will also revise requirements for how power plants discharge wastewater, which contains some of the same kind of contaminants. Under the Obama administration, EPA staff had concluded it was feasible to prohibit any releases of such toxic materials by having the units continually recycle their water. The agency has now concluded this is much more costly than originally anticipated, and technological advances have made it cheaper to filter and capture the waste through a membrane system, officials said.

Under the new rule, plants would be allowed to discharge 10 percent of their water each day, on a 30-day rolling average. The administration projects the regulation would prevent 105 million pounds of pollutants from being released compared with the old standards because 18 affected plants would voluntarily adopt a more advanced filtration system. The administration also estimated it would save the industry $175 million each year in compliance costs and yield an additional $15 million to $69 million in annual public health and environmental benefits.

However, even if the 18 plants voluntarily adopted more advanced filtration techniques, they represent a minority of the nation’s total plants.

Elizabeth “Betsy” Southerland, former director of science and technology at the EPA’s Office of Water, said the proposed rule “relaxes the 2015 treatment requirements allowing increased selenium discharges and [the] release of contaminated water from coal ash handling. Even worse, it exempts a large number of plants from these relaxed requirements, allowing them to discharge more pollutants and continue disposing of ash in leaking ponds.”

Patterson said although it may be “just hard to understand” why companies need more time and flexibility, plant operators have no interest in contaminating nearby waterways. “They live in and around these communities,” she said.

Evans said environmentalists are likely to challenge the new rule on coal ash storage, and the federal government could again reverse course if a Democrat wins the presidency next year. She noted that, because 95 percent of coal ash ponds remain unlined, two-thirds lie within five feet of groundwater and 92 percent leak more than federal health standards allow, they could pose a risk to the public even as litigation winds its way through the federal courts.

“We have to hope that no wells are poisoned and no toxic waste is spilled in the interim,” she said. “Crossing your fingers is not a legal or sane way to regulate toxic waste.”

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    Schiff introduces constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United

    By Rachel Frazin, The Hill, 05/08/19 11:58 AM EDT
    [See also Shiff’s press release]
    Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.)

    Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) on Wednesday introduced a constitutional amendment to overturn the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling, which eliminated restrictions on corporate campaign spending.

    The amendment would allow Congress and states to put limits on campaign contributions, according to a statement from Schiff’s office.

    “The Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United overturned decades of legal precedent and has enabled billions in dark money to pour into our elections,” Schiff said in a statement.

    The amendment would also allow states to enact laws creating public financing of campaigns.

    “Amending the Constitution is an extraordinary step, but it is the only way to safeguard our democratic process against the threat of unrestrained and anonymous spending by wealthy individuals and corporations,” he added. “This amendment will restore power to everyday citizens.”

    Schiff also announced the amendment on Twitter.

    “Our democracy is not for sale,” he wrote. “We must stop the flood of dark money from drowning out the voices of everyday citizens.”

    The 5-4 Citizens United ruling prohibited the government from limiting spending by companies, nonprofit organizations and unions on political campaign advertisements. The majority argued that such provisions would inhibit freedom of speech.

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      The federal government’s repeated failure to address the volatility of the oil moving by rail in America

      Repost from DeSmog

      Federal Government Foot-Dragging Helps Oil Industry Delay Oil-by-Rail Rules

      By Justin Mikulka, April 5, 2019 – 13:18

      In an attempt to reduce the risk of fiery oil train accidents, the state of Washington is working to pass a bill that would limit the vapor pressure of oil on trains to below 9 pounds per square inch (psi). Vapor pressure is a measure of the volatility of flammable liquids and correlates to their likelihood of igniting. Higher vapor pressure means an oil is more volatile and more likely to ignite and burn when a train derails.

      If the federal government won’t act to protect public safety and adopt a safer nationwide standard, we will adopt our own,” state Sen. Andy Billig (D-Spokane) said of the bill he sponsored. “There is just too much to lose — for people and our environment.”

      Billig’s comments point to the federal government’s repeated failure to address the volatility of the oil moving by rail in America.

      The Obama administration specifically left this issue out of the Department of Transportation’s 2015 regulations on moving oil by rail. In May 2017, half a dozen state attorneys general petitioned the federal government to regulate vapor pressure, which resulted in a proposed rule at the end of the Obama administration.

      This oil train vapor pressure rule has gone nowhere in the Trump administration.

      As DeSmog reported in 2016, the American Petroleum Institute has said that even having these discussions about regulating oil vapor pressure is “dangerous.”

      Exploding oil train fireball in Casselton, North Dakota
      The fireball that followed the derailment and explosion of two trains, one carrying Bakken crude oil, on December 30, 2013, outside Casselton, North Dakota. Credit: U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Administration

      Unsurprisingly, the state of North Dakota, where much of the highly volatile crude oil moved by rail in America is produced, opposes Washington state’s rule and is preparing to sue the state over it.

      However, in a surprising moment of honesty, North Dakota’s top oil regulator didn’t bother pretending this opposition was about safety and instead revealed the real motivation: money.

      Lynn Helms, director of the North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources, said that taking the steps to stabilize the crude oil (remove its volatile natural gas liquids) and achieve a vapor pressure of less than 9 psi would “devalue the crude oil immensely.”

      The crude coming out of oil fields like North Dakota’s Bakken Shale is rich in natural gas liquids such as propane and butane, which make the oil more dangerous to transport but also more valuable. A value the industry and its allies in government aren’t willing to relinquish.

      However, this isn’t really news. I wrote about a similar message from a North Dakota oil producer in 2014 when he too was opposing regulations to reduce the vapor pressure of Bakken oil before rail transport.

      The flammable characteristics of our product are actually a big piece of why this product is so valuable. That is why we can make these very valuable products like gasoline and jet fuel,” said Tony Lucero of oil producer Enerplus.

      North Dakota Using Federal Government Delays to Avoid Regulation

      Once trains carrying volatile oil from the Bakken Shale started blowing up on a regular basis in 2013, it became clear that the oil itself was part of the problem. Its high amounts of natural gas liquids make the oil more volatile and therefore more likely to catch fire and explode.

      After the deadly oil train accident in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, that killed 47 people, there was confusion about the associated explosions and intense fires that burned for days. As the Wall Street Journal reported at the time, an oil executive said, “Crude oil doesn’t explode like that.”

      Which is true. But crude oil mixed with lots of propane and butane, such as the Bakken’s crude oil, does explode like that. And trains carrying oil from the Bakken continued to explode like that after derailing again and again.


      Rainy Day Train Message/Oil Train Protesters. Credit: Joe BruskyCC BYNC 2.0

      The Obama administration argued that it couldn’t regulate oil vapor pressure because the issue was disputed scientifically and required more study. More than three years ago, I wrote that this was simply a delay tactic and that claiming the oil industry didn’t understand the fundamental science of crude oil was absurd:

      “The oil industry and the government regulators in charge of regulating the industry don’t understand the basic science of oil. This is the core of the argument used to justify why they continue to run dangerous trains filled with Bakken oil through communities across North America. Do you believe them?

      Despite the audacity of this position, it is being used to delay any new regulations and to support the idea that the mystery of why Bakken crude oil explodes must be studied for years before it would be possible to make any regulatory decisions.”

      Meanwhile, as I’ve also been writing for years, if you ask an oil expert like Ramanan Krishnamoorti, a professor of petroleum engineering at the University of Houston, you learn that couldn’t be further from the truth.

      The notion that this requires significant research and development is a bunch of BS,” Krishnamoorti wrote in an email response to Al Jazeera. “The science behind this has been revealed over 80 years ago, and developing a simple spreadsheet to calculate risk based on composition and vapor pressure is trivial. This can be done today.” [emphasis added]

      The Departments of Energy and Transportation announced the start of a study that was supposed to resolve this issue — four years ago — in April of 2015. At the time, regulators referred to it as a two-year study.

      In late 2016, at the Energy by Rail Conference in Arlington, Virginia, Suzanne Lemieux of the American Petroleum Institute gave a presentation on crude oil volatility and stabilization. While arguing once again that there wasn’t clear evidence that stabilizing oil reduces its volatility and risk, Lemieux noted that the federal study on the issue had been delayed. She said now it was expected to conclude sometime in 2018.

      The explanation for the delay was that the researchers at Sandia National Laboratories were still collecting samples of the oil in late 2016 — almost a year and a half after the “two-year” study was announced.

      And now, four years later, according to The Bismarck Tribune, North Dakota oil regulator Lynn Helms “encouraged [Washington] legislators to wait for the results of a Sandia National Laboratories study that was commissioned by the U.S.Department of Transportation and the U.S. Department of Energy.”

      Four years later. The federal government is unable to complete a two-year study in four years on a question which oil experts already know the answer to.

      A very effective delay tactic that means no one can “devalue” the oil implicated in multiple explosions and 47 deaths.

      Main image: Screen shot of McClatchy article combined with Justin Mikulka’s oil train photo and text. Credit: Justin Mikulka 

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        Bump Stock Ban now official nationwide – Supreme Court

        Repost from NPR News
        [See also the New York Times report.]

        Bump Stock Ban Proceeds After Supreme Court Denies Gun Makers’ Request To Halt It

        By Laurel Wamsley, March 28, 201912:54 PM ET
        A bump stock, left, is a device that can be added to a gun to increase its firing speed. The devices were banned by the federal government his week. George Frey/Getty Images

        The U.S. Supreme Court officially denied an appeal from gun makers seeking to stop a Trump administration ban on bump stocks, the gun add-ons that can dramatically increase their rate of fire. The ban went into effect on Tuesday.

        Gun makers had filed separate appeals to Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Sonia Sotomayor, requesting a temporary hold on the ban. Roberts denied one appeal earlier this week; Sotomayor referred hers to the full court, which denied it on Thursday, allowing the ban to proceed while challenges to it move through the courts.

        Bump stocks gained national attention after they were used in the October 2017 mass shooting in Las Vegas, where a gunman used bump-stock outfitted rifles to kill 58 people at an outdoor concert.

        The ban requires bump stocks to be destroyed — such as by melting, shredding or crushing — or handed over at an office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives. The ATF recommends making an appointment with the ATF office beforehand.

        As NPR’s Bill Chappell reported on Wednesday, the anticipation of a ban spurred sales of the devices:

        RW Arms, a prominent bump stock retailer based in Fort Worth, Texas, says its entire remaining inventory of 60,000 bump stocks has now been turned over to the ATF’s custody. The items will be “shredded and recycled under the supervision of ATF agents,” the company said.

        In the run-up to the total ban, RW Arms had rushed to sell as many bump stocks as it could, posting a countdown clock on its website to warn customers of the impending change. Its bump stocks were priced at between $179 and $199; the website now says they’re out of stock.

        The ATF isn’t saying exactly how many bump stocks have been turned in so far — in large part because there are many ways for gun owners to comply with the law. But the agency’s chief of public affairs, April Langwell, says bump stock owners have turned the accessories in at ATF field offices “all across the country.”

        Some states and cities banned the devices more than a year ago.

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