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Story highlights

Coal burning power plants create coal ash, one of the largest forms of industrial waste

Heavy metals found in coal ash, such as arsenic, lead and mercury can carry health risks

EPA acting head Andrew Wheeler previously lobbied on behalf of energy companies

(CNN) —  

In March 2017, coal mogul Bob Murray came to the Washington headquarters of the US Department of Energy for a meeting with Secretary Rick Perry. Also at the table was Andrew Wheeler, who this month became acting head of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Wheeler had helped organize the meeting as a lobbyist for the firm Faegre Baker Daniels, where Murray Energy was one of four energy clients he represented. The Murray team’s agenda that day: a four-page action plan “for achieving reliable and low cost electricity in America and to assist in the survival of our Country’s coal industry.”

Murray, chief executive of Murray Energy, one of the largest coal companies in the country, was leading a pro-coal campaign on the Trump administration. He had sent a similar plan to Vice President Mike Pence as well as then-EPA head Scott Pruitt.

Details of the plans and emails were discovered in documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act by E&E news.

The plan had 17 bullet points, including cutting the EPA staff at least in half, because, according to Murray, “Tens of thousands of government bureaucrats have issued over 82,000 pages of regulations under Obama, many of them regarding coal mining and utilization. The Obama EPA, alone, wrote over 25,000 pages of rules, thirty-eight (38) times the words in our Holy Bible.”

Murray also suggested withdrawing from the Paris climate accord because it “is an attempt by the rest of the world to obtain funding from our Country.”

Secretary of of Energy Rick Perry, second from left, meets with Murray Energy CEO Bob Murray, third from right, on March 29, 2017. Now acting head of the EPA Andrew Wheeler is at far right.
Simon Edelman/DOE
Secretary of of Energy Rick Perry, second from left, meets with Murray Energy CEO Bob Murray, third from right, on March 29, 2017. Now acting head of the EPA Andrew Wheeler is at far right.

At the top of Murray’s list was managing coal ash, the leftover waste power plants create from burning coal. Coal ash contains heavy metals including arsenic, lead and mercury that can be harmful to your health.

The plan stated that the relevant regulation needed to be rewritten “delegating the authority to the states.”

Murray presented drafts of six proposed presidential executive orders, including one aimed at deregulating coal ash. The draft read, “the states should be authorized to develop and enforce their own plans for disposal of coal combustion residuals … rather than the USEPA.”

This week, as one of his first major acts at the EPA, Wheeler signed and finalized new standards overseeing coal ash.

It’s a revision of 2015 regulations put into place by the Obama administration after two significant industrial coal ash spills. The regulations now put more authority in the hands of states to regulate their own waste.

Most significantly, under the original version of the regulations, companies had to provide annual groundwater monitoring results. Under the new revisions, if the plant is able to prove that it isn’t polluting the aquifer, it is no longer required to monitor. Provisions that previously required assessments from professional engineers were also struck.

The Action Items list that Murray Energy CEO Bob Murray gave to Secretary Rick Perry.
Simon Edelman
The Action Items list that Murray Energy CEO Bob Murray gave to Secretary Rick Perry.

The revised rules “provide states and utilities much-needed flexibility in the management of coal ash, while ensuring human health and the environment are protected,” Wheeler said in a statement. “Our actions mark a significant departure from the one-size-fits-all policies of the past and save tens of millions of dollars in regulatory costs.”

Critics of the new coal ash rules say they are a gift to industry and a continued burden for those communities near coal ash sites.

“These rules will allow yet more tons of coal ash, containing toxics like arsenic and mercury, to be dumped into unlined leaking pits sitting in groundwater and next to rivers, lakes and drinking water reservoirs,” said Frank Holleman, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, referencing the finalized coal ash rules. “These rules also substitute politics for science by allowing action to be taken based on certification by a politically appointed agency director instead of a licensed practicing engineer.”

“It is now apparently the goal of EPA to save industry money by allowing them to continue to dump toxic waste into leaking pits, which is exactly what the new rule accomplishes,” said Lisa Evans, an attorney with the nonprofit environmental law group Earthjustice.

CNN Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta requested to speak with Wheeler about the impact of his lobbying experience on his new position but was declined.

One of the largest sources of industrial waste

Coal ash is one of the most-generated forms of industrial waste in the country. According to the American Coal Ash Association, about 110 million tons were generated last year.

The association says that about half of all coal ash produced in the United States is recycled into construction materials such as concrete or wallboard.

However, that leaves about 50 million tons of coal ash does not get repurposed, and instead needs to be disposed of every year.

Historically, when coal was burned, plants would send the ash out of smokestacks, creating dark plumes of smoke. Now, scrubbers and filters collect much of the ash. It may not escape into the air anymore, but it does have to go somewhere.

So, power plants often mix the leftover ash with water and sluice it into unlined pits, where the ash settles to the bottom. In some places, these ponds have been dug into the groundwater table – water that can be pulled up by private drinking wells, or that eventually makes its way into public drinking water sources. Many of these sites also sit along the banks of rivers, lakes and streams, where nothing more than earthen banks separate waste from freshwater.

According to the EPA, there are over 1,000 coal ash disposal sites across the country, many of them constructed in the 1950s and 1960s, well before any sort of regulations.

Holleman said he can’t imagine a more precarious way to manage this waste.

“Millions of tons of industrial waste directly on the banks of major drinking water reservoirs that serve hundreds of thousands of people,” he said, “that’s a recipe for disaster.”

Two serious incidents

In the past decade, there have been two major coal ash spills in the United States. In 2008, a break in a dam at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston power plant sent over a billion gallons of coal ash cascading into the Clinch River. The black sludge blanketed over 300 acres, inundating the area around Kingston. The spill destroyed three homes and damaged a dozen others. Scientists found fish contaminated with high levels of arsenic and selenium months after the spill.