Dirty Water Under the Bridge
A 2012 report by researchers with the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service concluded that the EPA’s proposed option to continue to allow surface ponds of coal waste “is not environmentally or economically prudent” and is “inappropriate with respect to fish and wildlife health.”
The researchers presented information from 21 sites where they said environmental damage had been confirmed due to surface wastewater ponds. The combined direct and indirect costs of poisoned fish and wildlife is more than $2.3 billion, they wrote, “which is enough to construct 155 landfills with state-of-the-art liners” and other safe-disposal characteristics.
That article detailed successful changes by some utilities to phase out all such ponds.
“The electric utility industry vigorously opposed [the no-wet-disposal option], and it has enjoyed an open voice at the negotiating table, meeting with OMB officials some 20 times even before the EPA issued its proposed rule,” the authors wrote.
“We maintain that ignoring the past 45 years of wildlife poisoning and allowing it to continue is even more … burdensome to the environment and also unethical.”
The wildlife and forest service researchers also said that cost-benefit analyses to date had failed to take into account the financial cost of such ecological damage, which in many cases affects recreational use of waterways.
“Regulators should no longer ignore rigorous science and the lessons from multiple case examples,” they wrote, “particularly since the rise in coal use in developing countries is leading to the same [coal waste] pollution problems on a global scale.”
Duggan predicted that such scientific findings are going to keep piling up. “Science has really just scratched the surface” in figuring out the damages from such pollution, she said. The toxins from coal wastes “can be really dangerous in small concentrations, and they bio-accumulate.”
Smith, of Public Citizen, said a study several years ago by the University of Texas at San Antonio linked kids’ learning disabilities to mercury emissions.
“The evidence of linkage isn’t absolute,” he said, “but the conclusion is pretty much inescapable.”
The electric utility industry’s heavy lobbying against stronger regulations, noted by the wildlife and forest service researchers, was also outlined in “Closing the Floodgates.”
A copy of the EPA’s proposed rules was sent to the Office of Management and Budget before being released publicly. According to the environemntalists’ report, it “shows that the OMB caved to industry pressure and took the highly unusual and improper step of writing new, weaker options into the draft rule prepared by the EPA’s expert staff.”
Duggan said the record of the Obama administration on environmental matters has been “pretty disappointing. We’ve seen this [same effect] in other rulemaking related to coal: The EPA publishes a strong rule, and we discover that the OMB has weakened the standard, or the EPA withdraws the proposal.”
The record on coal plant pollution of water sources is strong engouh, Duggan said, that she thinks the public will support substantial changes. “In this case, you have the nation’s largest discharger of toxins and zero controls in place. I think the public will really understand that. I think that will ensure that common sense prevails.”