Arun Venugopal: I'm Arun Venugopal, in for Tanzina Vega. This is The Takeaway. This week, the Trump administration rolled back an Obama-era Environmental Protection Agency regulation requiring coal plants to treat wastewater for toxic chemicals. The move has the potential to affect the water supply for over 1 million people in the US who live near coal plants. At the same time, coal industry leaders who had opposed the rule for being too costly are welcoming the rollback. For more on this, we're joined by Emily Holden, environment reporter for The Guardian US. Emily, glad to have you with us.
Emily Holden: Thank you for having me.
Arun: How could this rule actually change the quality of drinking water for communities that live near coal plants?
Emily: Power plants are the largest industrial source of toxic wastewater pollution around the country and essentially, what the EPA has done is, say, if a coal plant is planning to shut down by 2028, they don't have to comply with these new rules to treat wastewater at all. If they aren't, they can have more time and more flexibility to do so.
Arun: Just to be clear, does this mean that they weren't actually complying anyways?
Emily: The rule that was implemented or that was written by the Obama administration had not yet gone into effect. No, they were not.
Arun: Okay. That's because once the Trump administration came in, they managed to push back compliance, correct?
Emily: Essentially, but in the rule from the Obama administration would have had them, beginning in 2018, start to use the most up-to-date technology and finalize their updates by 2023. Now, they're going to have until 2025.
Arun: Got it. Let's talk about these toxins that could really affect people. What are these toxins and how exactly do they affect people's health?
Emily: We're talking mainly about heavy metals. The waste that's coming from coal plants, they have these air filters, what are called scrubbers on them, that coal plant operators have to clean out and they do that with water. You have toxic metals that end up in that water, arsenic, mercury, selenium, lead, and things that are linked with a broad range of health issues, both because they end up in drinking water and because they accumulate in fish that people eat from their local rivers and lakes.
Arun: There's also something called coal ash, right?
Emily: That's right. There's another kind of waste from coal plants that is essentially what's leftover after burning the coal that you can't burn any further to make electricity and so the coal plant operators clean that out with water as well and they usually end up putting that in a pit or pond that can leach into the groundwater as well.
Arun: Now, the Trump administration says the rule actually cut pollution down more than the Obama rule. Is there any truth in that?
Emily: They're claiming that they would be able to cut more pollution, yes, but the way that they're able to do that is by counting many of the efforts that they have made voluntary for the coal industry. If they were just to count the things that they're requiring the coal plants to do, they would probably be getting very different numbers.
Arun: I guess, basically, you're saying that this is all just like an honor system under the Trump administration?
Emily: No, there are some requirements that are actually mandatory, but what the Trump EPA is counting is they're saying that we assume that 30% of coal plants are just going to get the better technology even though we're not requiring them to do so and then they're counting those pollution reductions.
Arun: How many coal plants we're talking about? This is an industry that is essentially on the decline, correct?
Emily: Yes, coal has really been in decline for decades now really for a mix of reasons. In part because, in addition to polluting the water, it is also a large source of pollution for the air and emits carbon dioxide which is the major climate pollutant. You've seen a lot of electricity companies switching over to cheaper natural gas or renewable power. What we're talking about is 1 million Americans that live within 3 miles of a coal plant where this water is being discharged there around the country and we know that poor Americans and people of color are much more likely to live near these plants and also, near other polluting industries where they're having a bigger cumulative impact from all the pollution that they live with.
Arun: Emily, this is just the latest regulatory measure that's gone in industries' favor. Have environmentalists had any success under this administration?
Emily: I think the Trump administration sought out to rollback essentially every major environment and climate regulation that we saw from the Obama administration and then even more that we're older than that. The environmental advocacy groups have challenged a lot of these rules and they've had some major successes, but a lot of the court processes are still ongoing. The key thing to remember here is that the regulatory process takes a long time to start, it takes a long time to roll back, but really, what's happened here is even if there's another administration, a Joe Biden administration, there's been a major delay in climate efforts and environmental protection efforts in the US.
Arun: What would you say have been the biggest successes on the part of environmental justice groups?
Emily: They've been able to halt some rules from taking effect and they have made some challenges to say that EPA has not essentially followed the protocols that they're supposed to or looked at all the science that they're supposed to, gotten enough feedback and been able to stop some things from moving forward.
Arun: As you said, the coal industry has been declining for years, is that why these companies have been asking for regulatory relief?
Emily: Yes, and as President Trump came into office, he campaigned on putting coal workers back to work. Initially, from the very beginning, he had all industries seeking regulatory relief, as they call it, from the agencies. It's not just coal, it's the oil and gas industry, the chemicals industry, all of them have gotten largely what they've sought from the Trump administration.
Arun: Is there any actual sign that these efforts are helping coal industry or help it bring back jobs?
Emily: These rollbacks to public health protections and safety protections. They will probably give some coal plants a little bit more of a runway before they shut down, but ultimately, they're not going to change the trajectory that the industry is on, which is still a very steep decline because power companies just don't want to burn coal anymore, they have other alternatives and it's essentially a matter of time until this industry continues to be phased out.
Arun: The technology that's used to treat this water and make it safe for drinking, is it really expensive?
Emily: I spoke with the woman who helped write this rule under the Obama administration, Betsy Sutherland, and she said, "It's not expensive at all and it has improved a lot since the rule was initially written." That's why she says that the technology that EPA is assuming that some coal plants will voluntarily use is what should be required if it's available and it's expensive, but something that they can do, she says that it's something that they should do.
Arun: Andrew Wheeler, the Head of the EPA is a former coal lobbyist. What was his role in crafting this rule change?
Emily: Wheeler has agreed to a number of issues that he won't work on that relate to his previous job, his previous clients, but the concern with that is that he's still over the agency and these rules basically say that he won't meet alone with the particular people that he worked with. He won't work on rules that would specifically benefit them, but he can be involved in rules that help an entire industry. Really, he oversees everything that's happening at the agency and he certainly had a hand in this rollback as well.
Arun: Are there other regulations the Trump administration has implemented that specifically threaten drinking water?
Emily: Yes, probably the biggest one is a change to a rule called the Waters of the United States rule, which the Obama administration wrote to expand the waters that were protected by federal regulation, looking at the bodies of water that feed into the bigger rivers and lakes. Now the Trump administration has changed that to say that those bodies of water are not subject to federal rules. What a lot of experts I talk to say is that that means that you're going to have more industry pollution coming into those smaller waterways and it will be harder for drinking water systems to get that out of our water before they provide it to us through our taps.
Arun: Emily, besides, I guess, the utilities and the industry leaders who are benefiting from this, do you see that there is a political benefit in terms of the Trump base, in terms of are these issues that really seem to appeal to them, these pro-industry measures?
Emily: That's a complicated question largely because I think a lot of Trump supporters would say that they want less government interference in American life, but we also know that Americans largely support environmental protection and they largely support climate action. This is the opposite of that. This is helping an industry that we know needs to be phased out in order to meet what is rapidly approaching and pretty stringent goal. We've already had a degree Celsius of warming. We're on track for three degrees Celsius of warming and that's something that's going to be catastrophic for American life.
Arun: Sure. Are there any other significant changes to climate policy that you've been witnessing over the course of this pandemic? Emily: A lot of them are coming before the pandemic. We know that the Trump administration is rolling back rules that would have sought to sort of transform the electricity sector and move away from coal plants and also rules that would require vehicles to get more miles per gallons and have to use as much gasoline. Also, during the pandemic, we've seen the Trump administration provide large payments to coal and oil and gas companies as part of its paycheck protection program. That's something that's been available to all industries, but we know that those industries that might've already been suffering got an additional boost from that money during this economic downturn.
Arun: Emily Holden is the environmental reporter for The Guardian US. Emily, thanks.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.