By Mary Anne Hitt, Sierra Club
If you like to swim, fish, or drink water, listen up. The Trump administration is coming for your clean water. Just a few days ago, Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) took a first step toward trying to roll back standards for our biggest source of toxic water pollution: coal-fired power plants. This is the latest installment in EPA administrator and fossil fuel BFF Scott Pruitt’s “Back to Pollution” agenda, and it might be coming to the tap water near you.
As our friend Pete Harrison at Waterkeeper Alliance put it, “This rollback gives a blank check to the power companies, and it directly threatens drinking water supplies across the country.”
Coal-fired power plants are our biggest source of toxic water pollution, as they discharge very nasty and dangerous chemicals like lead, arsenic, and cadmium that are linked to a host of serious health problems. But the federal standards for that pollution were almost nonexistent and 30 years out of date, thanks to the political clout of the coal industry. A court ordered EPA to act, and the agency finalized updated standards in 2015, which went into effect in January 2016.
Power plants have been busy complying with the standard since then, which could ultimately turn off the spigot of this toxic brew into our streams, rivers, and lakes. That’s good news for the millions of people living downstream, often totally unaware of the pollution threatening their drinking water. It turns out that nearly 40 percent of all coal plants discharge toxic pollution within five miles of a downstream community’s drinking water intake. Presently, coal plant wastewater has contaminated more than 23,000 miles of waterways, including nearly 400 water bodies used as drinking water sources.
However, a polluter lobby group had petitioned EPA to review (and ultimately revoke) the standard, and newly-minted EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has been happy to oblige. He recently informed a court that he would act on the decision and revisit the standard – despite it having been the law of the land for well over a year. To make matters worse, he also halted upcoming compliance deadlines in the meantime.
Imagine what this feels like for residents in Monroe, Michigan, who enjoy all types of recreation along Lake Erie. Yet because of this stay from Pruitt, a state water quality permit for the DTE Monroe coal plant – which discharges into a part of Lake Erie – will not have to include any prohibitions on discharging coal ash wastewater or any limits on selenium and arsenic coming from its scrubber wastewater.
The new EPA of Trump and Pruitt is one that prioritizes polluters over public health. For them, “back to basics” means listening only to fossil fuel companies.
The good news is that rolling back these standards will not be easy, and there will be opportunities along the way to raise our voices and oppose these rollbacks, in the streets and in the courts.