Gerald E. Connolly, a Democrat, represents Virginia’s 11th Congressional District in the House.
With a stroke of a pen, acting Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler helped cement the toxic legacy of Scott Pruitt’s reign over the EPA by rolling back federal coal ash standards. For many Northern Virginia residents, Pruitt’s ethical scandals were proximate sources of outrage. But his coal ash rule will hit even closer to home: their backyards.
We are not yet 10 years removed from the catastrophic coal ash spill near Kingston, Tenn., and only four years on from the Duke Energy spill that dumped 39,000 tons of toxic coal ash into the Dan River along the Virginia-North Carolina border. Communities are still cleaning up from these disasters. Yet the Trump EPA thinks it is time to let polluters decide how they will handle coal ash. The swamp somehow just got dirtier.
There are more than 300 coal ash impoundments across the United States, including Possum Point in my Northern Virginia district, which are at high or significant hazard risk for failure. An event such as the Kingston spill, which released more than 5 million cubic yards of coal ash, covering more than 300 acres in toxic sludge and resulting in more than $1.2 billion in cleanup costs, would have devastating consequences for our region.
The lasting health consequences of such spills, some of which are still unknown, are even worse. Many residents continue to suffer from respiratory illnesses and other side effects. Hazardous chemicals such as mercury, lead, chromium, arsenic, selenium and boron can devastate even healthy individuals. And this year, lawyers filed suit in federal court alleging that more than 180 cleanup workers from the Superfund site now face severe health effects and that as many as 30 may have died. In addition, spills can cause direct harm to local properties, businesses and wildlife.
Which makes it all the more mind-boggling that the Trump EPA would jeopardize the environmental and public health of our community. But just as perverse as this decision is, so was the process Pruitt went through to come to this conclusion. The proposal was announced only four months ago, included few hearings and little outreach to the public. That’s warp speed even for Trump’s polluter-driven swamp.
The Obama-era rule was the result of years of debate, input from community and industry stakeholders, and nearly a half-million public comments. The 2015 coal ash rule was neither rushed nor onerous. It offered stringent but pragmatic federal coal ash regulations to deal with post-closure care requirements, groundwater monitoring and public reporting. In fact, some, including myself, didn’t think the rule went far enough.
But, more important, it was a compromise that made our communities safer. As a result, states, including Virginia, were working to close legacy coal ash impoundments. And they were forced to do it in a scientific and transparent process. They were required to have stringent groundwater monitoring and provide those results to the public. That is a good thing. It required stricter post-closure care requirements and more inspections. Again, a good thing. Congress even gave states additional flexibility to adopt state-specific closure plans under the Water Infrastructure for Improvements to the Nation Act so long as the plan is “as protective” as the federal rule.
The Pruitt plan reverses that progress. It would weaken groundwater monitoring and cleanup requirements without considering the widespread evidence of significant groundwater contamination recently revealed by the energy industry’s own data. Under the original rule’s reporting requirements, we already know more than 70 coal ash waste sites in eight states show evidence of contaminated groundwater. Under Pruitt’s rule, that data may not even see the light of day.
Pruitt’s alleged self-dealing and venality may have garnered all the headlines, but I fear his greatest legacy will be the toxic Superfund sites in our backyards.