For decades, coal plants dumped toxic water laced with mercury, arsenic and other dangerous pollutants into America’s waterways. The practice contaminated thousands of miles of U.S. rivers and streams, according to federal estimates, making coal facilities the largest industrial source of toxic wastewater pollution in the country.
So when EPA issued a rule in 2015 to halt the discharges, environmentalists were elated. The agency estimated that its new standards would eliminate the release of 1.4 billion pounds of toxic metals, nutrients and other pollutants every year.
The victory was short-lived.
Utility lobbyists began pressing EPA to weaken the rule within weeks of Scott Pruitt’s confirmation as EPA administrator in 2017, according to documents obtained by the Sierra Club in a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit. EPA had spent four years studying power plant discharges and two more crafting the 2015 standards. It was the first update to coal plant wastewater discharges in more than three decades.
Pruitt needed less than a month to gut the rule.
“That was my baby, and we saw it go down the toilet,” said Betsy Southerland, who was then the head of EPA’s Office of Water. “We did two briefings with Pruitt to try to salvage it, but he had made the decision.”
Weakening the wastewater standard represented the opening salvo in the Trump administration’s campaign to stem a nationwide wave of coal plant closures. Federal agencies under Trump have proposed weakening, suspending or eliminating 18 regulations governing coal mining or coal-burning power plants, according to a review of Harvard University’s deregulatory tracker.
But as the wastewater standards show, the deregulatory blitz has delivered a modest economic boost to the coal industry at considerable cost to public health and the environment.