Category Archives: US Environmental Protection Agency

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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    Trump wants to trash California emission standards – Newsom and Becerra stand strong

    [Editor: First hear our California officials on the Youtube video of today’s press conference.  The LA Times story follows.  – RS]


    Newsom, Becerra lash out at Trump plan on California emissions standards

    Traffic in downtown Los Angeles seen from the 110 Freeway.
    Traffic in downtown Los Angeles seen from the 110 Freeway.  (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
    Los Angeles Times, by Phil Willon, Anna M. Phillips, Sep. 18, 2019

    Gov. Gavin Newsom on Wednesday criticized the Trump administration’s plan to rescind California’s nearly half-century-old authority to impose tough car emissions standards, vowing to take legal action to block the move.

    “California will prevail because we’re leaders in this space,” Newsom said.

    Newsom’s comments came during a morning news conference with state Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra, California Air Resources Board Chair Mary Nichols, and California Environmental Protection Agency Secretary Jared Blumenfeld.

    The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is expected to announce plans Thursday morning to overturn a special federal waiver that permits California to set its own strict pollution controls to improve air quality, the foundation of the state’s aggressive efforts to combat climate change.

    The EPA originally planned to announce that it would do away with the waiver at an event on Wednesday, while President Trump was visiting Los Angeles. But the announcement was delayed, handing the president an opportunity to deliver the news himself.

    In a series of tweets early Wednesday, Trump said that revoking California’s authority to impose emissions standards will help make cars safer and more affordable, an assertion that Newsom has consistently refuted.

    “This will lead to more production because of this pricing and safety advantage, and also due to the fact that older, highly polluting cars, will be replaced by new, extremely environmentally friendly cars,” Trump tweeted. “There will be very little difference in emissions between the California Standard and the new U.S. Standard, but the cars will be far safer and much less expensive. Many more cars will be produced under the new and uniform standard, meaning significantly more JOBS, JOBS, JOBS! Automakers should seize this opportunity because without this alternative to California, you will be out of business.”

    In fact, automakers have repeatedly warned the administration that forcing a legal battle with California over car pollution standards could significantly damage their bottom line. If the nation’s auto industry is split in two — with some states following California’s standards and others following weaker federal rules — car makers could find themselves caught in a regulatory nightmare, required to comply with both.

    Experts have also raised serious doubts about the administration’s argument that the new policy will make new cars safer. In a study published last year in the journal Science, researchers wrote that the administration’s analysis of its own policy proposal “has fundamental flaws and inconsistencies, is at odds with basic economic theory and empirical studies, [and] is misleading.”

    Ahead of Wednesday’s news conference, Newsom responded to the president’s claims on Twitter, calling them “simply inaccurate.”

    “Your standards will cost consumers $400 billion,” Newsom said in a tweet. “Result in 320 billion more gallons of oil burned and spewed into our air. And hurt car companies’ ability to compete in a global market. It’s bad for our air. Bad for our health. Bad for our economy.”

    The Trump administration’s action threatens to derail California’s effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions over the next decade to a level 40% below those recorded in 1990: The primary driver behind that effort is the state’s goal to help ensure more than 1 million zero-emission vehicles and plug-in hybrids are on the road by 2025.

    “Our message to those who claim to support states’ rights: Don’t trample on ours,” Becerra said Wednesday.

    California’s clash with the Republican president, who is in California to fundraise for his 2020 reelection campaign, comes just over a month after state officials worked to circumvent the Trump administration’s efforts to relax tailpipe pollution regulations by reaching a deal with four major automakers, Ford, Honda, Volkswagen and BMW, to gradually strengthen fuel-efficiency standards. Other automakers have expressed interest in joining the pact.

    In a tweet, Trump called California’s agreement with automakers “crazy” and the U.S. Department of Justice has launched an antitrust investigation into whether it violated federal competition law.

    The voluntary deal between the California Air Resources Board and automakers covers about a third of the new cars and SUVs sold in the U.S. Under the agreement, the four automakers agreed to produce cars that must reach a minimum of about 50 mpg by 2026.

    Since Trump’s election in 2016, California’s state officials have filed more than 50 lawsuits over the administration‘s actions on a variety of issues, including more than two dozen challenges to policies proposed by the EPA, the U.S. Department of the Interior and other federal agencies responsible for setting energy and fuel-efficiency standards. In August, California joined a coalition of 21 other states suing to block the Trump administration’s attempt to gut restrictions on coal-burning power plants.

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      Trump administration to relax restrictions on methane, a powerful greenhouse gas

      The oil and gas industry are split on the rollback

      This 2017 photo shows pumpjacks operating in the western edge of California's Central Valley northwest of Bakersfield. (Brian Melley/AP)
      This 2017 photo shows pumpjacks operating in the western edge of California’s Central Valley northwest of Bakersfield. (Brian Melley/AP)
      The Washington Post, By Juliet Eilperin and Brady Dennis, Aug 29, 2019

      The Environmental Protection Agency announced Thursday that it plans to loosen federal rules on methane, a powerful greenhouse gas linked to climate change.

      The proposed rule would reverse standards enacted under President Barack Obama that required oil and gas operators to prevent the release of methane in new drilling wells, pipelines and storage facilities.

      It also challenges the notion that the federal government has the authority to regulate methane without first making a detailed determination that it qualifies as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act.

      If successful, that change could hamper the ability of future administrations to enact tougher restrictions on methane. Already, the Trump administration has taken several steps to limit the government’s ability to regulate other greenhouse gases in the future, including in a recently finalized rule curbing carbon dioxide emissions from power plants.

      “EPA’s proposal delivers on President Trump’s executive order and removes unnecessary and duplicative regulatory burdens from the oil and gas industry,” EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said in a statement. “The Trump administration recognizes that methane is valuable, and the industry has an incentive to minimize leaks and maximize its use.”

      Methane is a significant contributor to the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, though it is shorter-lived than carbon dioxide and is not emitted in amounts as large. It often is leaked as companies drill for gas and transport it across the country, and methane emissions are more than 80 times as potent as carbon dioxide emissions over the short term.

      Scientists have projected that the world needs to cut its overall greenhouse gas emissions nearly in half by mid-century to avert catastrophic effects from global warming.

      According to the EPA, methane accounted for more than 10 percent of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions from human activities as recently as 2017. Nearly a third of those emissions were generated by the natural gas and petroleum industry.

      U.S. greenhouse gas emissions spiked in 2018 — and it couldn’t happen at a worse time

      “What they’re tackling is whether methane can lawfully be a regulatory pollutant,” Erik Milito, vice president of upstream and industry operations for the American Petroleum Institute, said in an interview. “We have a strong consensus that federal agencies need to follow the letter of the law. They did not do that, and they are going back and correcting that.”

      Anne Idsal, assistant administrator​ of the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, said the administration is confident that methane emissions from oil and gas companies will continue to decline over time, even without the current regulations.

      “Methane is a valuable resource,” Idsal told reporters in a call Thursday. “There’s every incentive for industry to minimize any type of fugitive methane emissions, capture it, use it and sell it down the road.”

      The agency estimates that the proposed changes, which will be subject to public comment for 60 days after they are published, would save the oil and natural gas industry $17 million to $19 million a year.

      But several of the world’s biggest fossil fuel companies, including Exxon, Shell and BP, have opposed the rollback and urged the Trump administration to keep the current standards in place. Collectively, these firms account for 11 percent of America’s natural gas output.

      In a statement Thursday, Shell U.S. President Gretchen Watkins reiterated the company’s support for national limits on methane, noting that Shell has pledged to reduce its methane leaks from its global operations to less than 0.2 percent by 2025.

      “We believe sound environmental policies are foundational to the vital role natural gas can play in the energy transition and have made clear our support of 2016 law to regulate methane from new and modified onshore sources,” she said. “Despite the administration’s proposal to no longer regulate methane, Shell’s U.S. assets will continue to contribute to that global target.”

      The Wall Street Journal first reported news of the rollback.

      Idsal said the agency will continue regulating volatile organic compounds, which are also released during oil and gas operations, rather than methane directly. Such limits could cut down on the amount of methane released in the process. Milito noted that by 2023, 90 percent of oil and gas facilities will have to install technology curbing volatile organic compounds.

      In September, the Interior Department eased requirements that oil and gas firms operating on federal and tribal land capture the release of methane.

      Environmentalists threatened to fight the Trump administration’s move in court.

      Kassie Siegel, director of the Climate Law Institute at the Center for Biological Diversity, an advocacy group, called the proposal reckless, saying it shows “complete contempt for our climate.” She said that even the Obama administration’s efforts to limit methane emissions were modest, given the significant amount that escapes into the atmosphere each year.

      “The Obama rule was like a Band-Aid on a gaping wound,” Siegel said. “The Trump administration is so fanatical that they couldn’t even live with the Band-Aid. They had to rip off the Band-Aid.”

      The Obama administration’s push to impose the first limits on methane emissions from the oil and gas industry in 2016 came shortly after the EPA found that emissions were on an upswing at a time when booming U.S. shale oil and gas drilling had dramatically driven down the prices of domestic natural gas and global oil alike.

      Ben Ratner, a senior director at the advocacy group Environmental Defense Fund, said in an interview that rolling back the regulations could reward bad actors in the industry. Given that many major players had embraced limits on methane, Ratner said, it made little sense for Trump officials to ease such restrictions.

      “It’s more of an ideological reaction to regulation of any climate pollutant by the federal government,” he said.

      Steven Mufson contributed to this report.

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        E.P.A. Plans to Get Thousands of Deaths Off the Books by Changing Its Math

        By Lisa Friedman, New York Times, May 20, 2019
        The Hunter power plant in Castle Dale, Utah, which burns an estimated 4.5 million tons of coal a year.  Credit: Brandon Thibodeaux for The New York Times

        WASHINGTON — The Environmental Protection Agency plans to change the way it calculates the future health risks of air pollution, a shift that would predict thousands of fewer deaths and would help justify the planned rollback of a key climate change measure, according to five people with knowledge of the agency’s plans.

        The proposed change would dramatically reduce the 1,400 additional premature deaths per year that the E.P.A. had initially forecast as a result of eliminating the old climate change regulation — the Clean Power Plan, which was President Barack Obama’s signature climate change measure. It would also make it easier for the administration to defend its replacement, known as the Affordable Clean Energy rule.

        It has been a constant struggle for the E.P.A. to demonstrate, as it is normally expected to do, that society will see more benefits than costs from major regulatory changes. The new modeling method, which experts said has never been peer-reviewed and is not scientifically sound, would most likely be used by the Trump administration to defend further rollbacks of air pollution rules.

        It is not uncommon for a presidential administration to use accounting changes to make its regulatory decisions look better than the rules of its predecessors. But the proposed new modeling method is unusual because it relies on unfounded medical assumptions and discards more than a decade of peer-reviewed E.P.A. methods for understanding the health hazards linked to the fine particulate matter produced by burning fossil fuels.

        Fine particulate matter — the tiny, deadly particles that can penetrate deep into the lungs and enter the bloodstream — is linked heart attacks, strokes and respiratory disease.

        The five people familiar with the plan, who are all current or former E.P.A. officials, said the new modeling method would be used in the agency’s analysis of the final version of the ACE rule, which is expected to be made public in June. William L. Wehrum, the E.P.A. air quality chief, acknowledged in an interview the new method would be included in the agency’s final analysis of the rule.

        The new methodology would assume there is little or no health benefit to making the air any cleaner than what the law requires. On paper, that would translate into far fewer premature deaths from air pollution, even if it increased. The problem is, scientists say, in the real world there are no safe levels of fine particulate pollution in the air.

        “Particulate matter is extremely harmful and it leads to a large number of premature deaths,” said Richard L. Revesz, an expert in environmental law at New York University. He called the expected change a “monumental departure” from the approach both Republican and Democratic E.P.A. leaders have used over the past several decades and predicted that it would lay the groundwork for weakening more environmental regulations.

        “It could be an enormously significant impact,” Mr. Revesz said.

        The Obama administration had sought to reduce planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Power Plan by pushing utilities to switch away from coal and instead use natural gas or renewable energy to generate electricity. The Obama plan would also have what’s known as a co-benefit: levels of fine particulate matter would fall.

        The Trump administration has moved to repeal the Obama-era plan and replace it with the ACE rule, which would slightly improve the efficiency of coal plants. It would also allow older coal plants to remain in operation longer and result in an increase of particulate matter.

        Particulate matter comes in various sizes. The greatest health risk comes from what is known as PM 2.5, the range of fine particles that are less than 2.5 microns in diameter. That is about one-thirtieth the width of a human hair.

        The E.P.A. has set the safety threshold for PM 2.5 at a yearly average of 12 micrograms per cubic meter. While individual days vary, with some higher, an annual average at or below that level, known as the particulate matter standard, is considered safe. However, the agency still weighs health hazards that occur in the safe range when it analyzes new regulations.

        Industry has long questioned that system. After all, fossil fuel advocates ask, why should the E.P.A. search for health dangers, and, ultimately, impose costs on industry, in situations where air is officially considered safe?

        Mr. Wehrum, who worked as a lawyer and lobbyist for chemical manufacturers and fossil fuel businesses before moving to the E.P.A., echoed that position in the interview. He noted that, in some regulations, the benefits of reduced particulate matter have been estimated to total in the range of $40 billion.

        “How in the world can you get $30 or $40 billion of benefit to public health when most of that is attributable to reductions in areas that already meet a health-based standard,” he said. “That doesn’t make any sense.”

        William L. Wehrum, the E.P.A. assistant administrator for air and radiation. Credit: Ron Sachs/CNP/MediaPunch

        Mr. Wehrum confirmed that he had asked his staff to study the issue and that the final version of the ACE rule would include a variety of analyses, including one that does not take into consideration health effects below the particulate matter standard. He acknowledged that doing so would reduce the 1,400 premature deaths the agency had initially predicted as a result of the measure.

        He called the attention given to that initial forecast “unfortunate” and said the agency had included the figure in its analysis to show the varied results that can be achieved based on different assumptions.

        Mr. Wehrum said the analyses the agency is conducting “illuminate the issue” of particulate matter and the question of what level is acceptable for the purposes of policymaking. He said new approaches would allow for public debate to move ahead and that any new methods would be subject to peer review if they became the agency’s primary tool for measuring health risks.

        “This isn’t just something I’m cooking up here in my fifth-floor office in Washington,” Mr. Wehrum said.

        Roger O. McClellan, who has served on E.P.A. advisory boards and as president of the Chemical Industry Institute of Toxicology, an industry-financed research center, said the data for health risks below the particulate matter standard was weak and that he did not accept the argument that agencies must calculate risk “down to the first molecule of exposure.”

        “These kinds of approaches — that every molecule, every ionization, carries with it an associated calculable health risk — are just misleading,” Mr. McClellan said.

        To put the matter in perspective, most scientists say particulate matter standards are like speed limits. On many highways, a limit of 65 miles per hour is considered reasonable to protect public safety. But that doesn’t mean the risk of an accident disappears at 55 m.p.h., or even 25.

        Jonathan M. Samet, a pulmonary disease specialist who is dean of the Colorado School of Public Health, said the most recent studies showed negative health effects well below the 12-microgram standard. “It’s not a hard stop where we can say ‘below that, air is safe.’ That would not be supported by the scientific evidence,” Dr. Samet said. “It would be very nice for public health if things worked that way, but they don’t seem to.”

        Daniel S. Greenbaum, president of the Health Effects Institute, a nonprofit research organization that is funded by the E.P.A. and industry groups, acknowledged there was uncertainty around the effects of fine particulate matter exposure below the standard.

        He said it was reasonable of the Trump administration to study the issue, but he questioned moving ahead with a new system before those studies are in. “To move away from the way this has been done without the benefit of this full scientific peer review is unfortunate,” he said.


        For more news on climate and the environment, follow @NYTClimate on Twitter.
        Lisa Friedman reports on climate and environmental policy in Washington. A former editor at Climatewire, she has covered nine international climate talks. @LFFriedman
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