Taxpayers Pay Cost for Coal Companies to Pollute
Dalal Aboulhosn, the Sierra Club’s Deputy Legislative Director for Land and Water, says EPA Director Scott Pruitt is ignoring true costs and benefits in his support for coal companies’ “bottom line”
DIMITRI LASCARIS: This is Dimitri Lascaris for The Real News.
Arsenic, lead, and mercury are just some of the highly toxic heavy metals in the waste water flushed from coal fired plants into rivers and lakes across the United States. It seems that the head of the Environmental Protection Agency wants to keep it that way. The head of the EPA, Scott Pruitt, has sent a letter to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. The letter was addressed to the pro-industry Utility Water Act Group and the U.S. Small Business Administration. The letter outlines how Pruitt plans to rewrite an Obama-era measure promulgated in 2015 that limits water pollution from coal fired power plants. With us to discuss the ramifications of Scott Pruitt’s latest maneuver and what’s next in this battle to protect clean water across the United States. We are joined from Washington D.C. by Dalal Aboulhosn, the Sierra Club’s Deputy Executive Director for Land and Water. Welcome to The Real News, Dalal.
DALAL ABOULHOSN: Thank you for having me.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: So first of all, is this something new on Scott Pruitt’s part? There have recently been hearings about this rule in the United States Congress, I understand, so what does this letter add to the debate to the whole process surrounding this rule?
DALAL ABOULHOSN: Let me just put this into some perspective for you. This rule was finalized in 2015, as you said, and before then there had been no regulation on what coal plants could dump into our waterways. I think it is just telling how Administrator Scott Pruitt keeps to being on the side of big coal plants and not the communities who are dealing with this coal pollution every day, who are worried about their drinking water, who are worried about the fish that they pull from these rivers that feed their families, about what they bathe their children in.
I think what we have seen, even though there have been hearings and a comment period, is this giveaway to coal plants to meet their bottom lines as opposed to the safety of our communities.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: So let’s talk about some of the figures that are being batted around in connection with this rule. I understand that coal power plants are the biggest water polluter in the U.S. Under the Obama Administration, the EPA estimated that this huge water polluter would incur compliance costs in the range of $480 million, but that the estimated benefits associated with the rule would be in the range of $451-566 million.
Now, Scott Pruitt is saying, I understand, that it’s, quote, “In the public interest to conduct a rule making to potentially revise the regulations.” He seems to be suggesting that the net cost or the net result of applying this rule being negative for the public interest and that the public would be better off without a rule of this nature. How do you respond to his critique?
DALAL ABOULHOSN: Scott Pruitt’s EPA has been systematically ignoring the cost and the benefits … the true cost and benefits of all the rules that are in front of them right now. Instead of looking at what these rules could do for the health of our families and for the health of our economies … a lot of our economies rely on clean, reliable drinking water. Instead of looking at those numbers, they’re looking at the bottom lines of the coal companies and making sure that their profits are maximized. Instead of letting them implement these rules that are very common sense, that use technologies that have been proven, and that aren’t very expensive, mind you, they are just throwing that to the side, and ignoring those numbers, and completely just taking the word of coal companies and their profits.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: Let’s unpack a little bit these numbers and what you said. I take it from what you’re saying that, and correct me if I’m wrong, that the Obama Administration, in calculating the benefits to society of the promulgation of this rule, took into account, for example, reduced healthcare costs resulting from the consumption of water that’s less contaminated by communities that are being affected by this toxic waste, and took into account, for example, the lost days of productivity that result from sicknesses that are caused by the contamination. Is that the case? Was his estimate … was his administration’s estimate of the benefits of this rule comprehensive in that sense? Did it look at all the real benefits, both direct and indirect, and is Pruitt ignoring those more indirect benefits?
DALAL ABOULHOSN: So I think the Obama Administration did a very good job of trying to unwrap all the different benefits we get from clean water. One that you didn’t mention that the Obama Administration touched on, but maybe not as thoroughly as we would have liked to see, is the cost that this will save to our local municipalities who are trying to clean up our water. If the coal companies are allowed to pollute, well, that water has to get cleaned up before it gets to your tap, and who pays for that? It’s the municipalities, and it’s you who are paying your water and sewage bill every month. They’ve also been on the side of stronger regulations here because they recognize the cost is just gonna come downstream, pun intended, to them. So there’s a benefit there, too, of not having to pay for the pollution later. By cutting off the spigot early and making sure that pollution doesn’t get into our waters, we are not only going to make sure that it doesn’t show up on our water bill, but we’re also gonna make sure it doesn’t show up on our healthcare bill, as well.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: So while Pruitt’s EPA effectively obstructs the implementation of a 2015 rule, are coal plants in the United States still operating under regulations that were established in 1982, and if so what effect is having that on local populations … which local populations are being most affected by these plants?
DALAL ABOULHOSN: Well, let me answer the first part of your question. As a lot of these coal plants had already started to think of how to implement this rule … as you noted, this rule was promulgated two years ago, so it was on the books and ready to be fully implemented across the board. A lot of the coal plants were thinking of strategies and the cost associated with having to live under these new regulations and safeguards. There was already a move to implementation to some of these places, but not everywhere because it hadn’t been fully implemented just yet.
Now, when it comes to who is going to be dealing with this pollution the most, it’s the folks who live near these coal plants. These are direct pollution going into the waterways. I mean, you can see the pipes going right into our waterways with all of this type of pollution from the coal burning power plants, which includes things that you don’t have to be a scientist to know you don’t want in your water. It’s arsenic, it’s selenium, it’s mercury, it’s lead. It’s things that we have proven over the decades and prove more and more that are dangerous for children, for pregnant women, and for people who are already in bad health. They have been shown to cause cancers and learning disabilities.
This rule was really a common sense rule dealing with known carcinogens and known pollution that we really don’t want in our water. This isn’t some long chemical that we’re still studying to figure out exactly what it’s doing to the human body. We know exactly what these pollutants will do to us and will do to the fish that we might eat, and that they are going to move downstream. The people who live right on the fence line, right in the shadows of these coal plants, are the people who are gonna get the most of it, and those are the people who are speaking out against this.
We did have a hearing here in Washington D.C. just a couple of weeks ago on the repeal of the implementation of this rule. The vast majority were people who came from all over the country to stand up and say, “Administrator Pruitt, what are you doing? We fought for these rules for years and now you’re talking about taking them away from us, and you’re talking about my children, and my grandchildren, and the future of our businesses and our community.” I think the outpouring from these communities is loud, and is sincere, and intense. It just seems to be falling on deaf ears when it comes to Administrator Pruitt.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: So let’s talk about Pruitt’s and Trump’s rationale for protecting the interests of the coal industry. They’re big supporters of coal, and over in West Virginia where coal billionaire Governor Jim Justice last week told reporters that he had asked the federal government for $4.5 billion a year in funding to save Appalachian coal mines … doesn’t this effective begging to feed at the trough of public money show or at least suggest that this is an industry that is no longer economically viable without massive government intervention?
DALAL ABOULHOSN: Yes, I mean, I think if you will look at the history of our energy use over the last probably two centuries, you’ll see that we went from shoveling wood and coal into pits for steam electric to now moving towards more renewable energies, and I think you’ll see the renewable energy growing. I think it’s just a natural progression of the way our economy is moving. The coal industry is a dying industry. Unfortunately, there are a lot of people, especially in places like West Virginia, that are losing their jobs and that are losing their pensions because of the greed of coal companies, and their elected officials aren’t listening to them. There are different ways … groups like the Sierra Club are trying to put money towards more reeducation, to put money into different types of new energy for those areas so that there are jobs, so that there are ways for those communities to bounce back, instead of just more of the same, which is just a dying industry that is going to end up polluting and then leaving behind a legacy that is not going to help anybody in those communities.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: I don’t know … One of the things that we’ve heard from people like the Governor of West Virginia is that coal use is not just a matter of economics, it’s also a matter of national security, but we’ve also heard from the Pentagon in recent years about the implications for national security of climate change. What is the Pentagon currently saying, to the best of our knowledge, about the threat that climate changes poses to national security? In your view, what would best serve the interests of national security, the continued public investment in a dying coal industry or massive investment in renewable energy?
DALAL ABOULHOSN: Well, I’m not an expert on national security, but I think that the writing is on the wall, and I think it’s a pretty obvious thing to look around at our economy and see that wind and solar are growing at an incredible rate, and that they can create jobs here in the U.S., and that they can make us more energy secure by not having to rip up our National Parks or our public lands to get at coal and worry about not only what we are doing to the landscape of the environment, but also the people around those mining sites and where we burn coal in those power plants. I think that investing more in our renewable resources would also just make our economy stronger, would make our national security stronger, and would also hopefully make our communities healthier at the end of the day and make it so that all of those things together make us a robust economy and nation that we want to be.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: Well, this has been Dimitri Lascaris speaking to Dalal Aboulhosn, the Sierra Club’s Deputy Legislative Director for Land and Water about the latest attempts of Scott Pruitt’s EPA to obstruct the implementation of a new rule relating to coal plant wastewater. Thanks very much for joining us today, Dalal.
DALAL ABOULHOSN: Thank you for your time.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: And this has been Dimitri Lascaris for The Real News.