Coal Power Plants are the Largest Source of Toxic Water Contamination
Director of Beyond Coal Campaign at Sierra Club, Mary Anne Hitt, discusses Trump administration’s assault on environmental regulations that protect drinking water and health from coal plant wastewater dumping and how activists organize against them
DIMITRI LASCARI: This is Dimitri Lascaris for The Real News. The Trump administration is continuing its assault on environmental regulations that protect both the environment and Americans’ health. The Environmental Protection Agency, now under the helm of climate change denialist, Scott Pruitt, held a hearing on Monday, July 31st, in regard to Pruitt’s decision to delay compliance deadlines for strengthened effluent limitations guidelines against coal plant wastewater dumping. Community leaders from across United States converged on Washington to testify at the EPA’s hearing, demanding Donald Trump and Scott Pruitt stop pandering to billionaire coal executives and protect communities from coal plants dumping toxic industrial sludge into their drinking water supplies. With us to discuss the significance of the hearing and what Pruitt’s decision to delay compliance deadlines for strengthened effluent limitation guidelines mean for Americans, speaking to us from Shepherdstown, West Virginia, we are joined by Mary Anne Hitt, who is the director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign. Thanks for joining us, Mary Anne.
MARY ANNE HITT: It’s a pleasure to be with you and I’m actually in our Washington D.C. office of the Sierra Club today, so making a trip to D.C. to keep fighting the good fight.
DIMITRI LASCARI: Well, we’re happy to have you. We’d like to start, Mary Anne, by talking about the significance of the hearing. Why is the effluent issue significant and particularly why is delaying the rule one that ought to concern Americans?
MARY ANNE HITT: Well, most people don’t know that the single biggest source of toxic water pollution in this country is coal-fired power plants. They produce more nasty pollution in our water than all other industrial sources combined, and we’re talking about very dangerous chemicals like arsenic and lead and mercury that have been linked to health problems like cancer and birth defects. This is serious business, and after many decades of dragging their heels, the EPA put standards in place in 2015 that finally called for the clean up this pollution. Now, under Trump’s leadership, his EPA director Scott Pruitt is trying to roll those standards back, and this was the first step in that effort, and so we were in D.C. on Monday with community leaders from across the country who are affected by this pollution directly to stand up and oppose those rollbacks.
DIMITRI LASCARI: None of the Obama administration … I understand the EPA estimated annual compliance costs where the final rule promulgated in September of 2015 to be $480 million and the estimated benefits associated with the rule to be in the range of $451 to $566 million. Do you think those estimates are more or less accurate? Are they credible, and what are the principle components of these costs and benefits?
MARY ANNE HITT: Well, typically the costs to industry are overblown and that costs to the American people are underestimated of bearing the pollution. The fact of the matter is coal plants, there’s a fraction of coal plants in the U.S. that haven’t dealt with this pollution properly. The cost to them to clean it up by our estimate would be 0.3% of the annual revenue of these companies. It’s a small cost to clean up a very big problem. When it isn’t cleaned up, what it means is that we are dealing with this in our drinking water, and as it turns out 40% of the coal plants that are creating this kind of waste are within five miles of a drinking water intake for a community in this country. This is not rocket science. They don’t have to invent a new technology. There’s a very basic technology available today to clean this up. When they don’t do it, it’s the public that pays the cost with substances like arsenic and mercury making their way potentially into our drinking water and definitely into waters where people fish and where people like to swim and recreate.
DIMITRI LASCARI: You mentioned some of the toxic substances that are in this effluent like mercury and so forth. What are the principle adverse health effects of consuming these toxins in the quantities in which we’re finding them in Americans’ drinking water or consuming them indirectly through for example fish that have been contaminated.
MARY ANNE HITT: Well, when people think of pollution from coal-fired power plants if they think of it, they I think typically think of smoke stacks and what’s going up into the air. As we have gotten better at cleaning up what’s coming out of the smoke stack, the very toxic chemicals that are in coal don’t just disappear. What’s happening instead is they are appearing at higher and higher concentrations in this solid waste that is left behind after you burn coal and it’s called coal ash. It is very toxic metals like mercury, lead, arsenic, cadmium, things that have links to birth defects, to lowered IQ and delays in walking and talking if a baby is exposed in the womb or when they’re very small, and also cancer and even premature death. If any of your viewers have ever been pregnant or have been the partner of someone who’s been pregnant, you go to the doctor and one of the things they tell you right away is, “Limit your intake of certain fish because these fish are known to have high levels of mercury.”
If you eat mercury-contaminated fish when you’re pregnant, your baby will have lifelong developmental delays and problems potentially. That is predominantly coming from coal and predominantly coming from coal-fired power plants. That is the pollution that this standard was in part intended to address, and it’s infuriating frankly that the EPA put this standard forward and now under Trump leadership is trying to take it away from all the Americans people.
DIMITRI LASCARI: You mentioned the proximity of this waste to sources of drinking water. What communities in the United States are being principally affected by this effort?
MARY ANNE HITT: Well, again most Americans have no idea that they are potentially living near one of these sites. As of about five years ago, there were just about 530 coal-fired power plants in the United States. They’re always located on a body of water because they need water to make electricity, and many of these coal plants are upstream of drinking water intake of major American cities like Charlotte, North Carolina for example, a place that I have visited and have seen first-hand with my own eyes the coal ash impoundments just upstream from that city’s drinking water. There are fewer coal plants now thanks to the work of advocates around the country who are affiliated with the Beyond Coal campaign. We have just over 250 coal plants now announced to retire, but we still have a lot of coal ash being produced. We still have a lot of this toxic water pollution being created. Again, this is a solvable problem, and if we don’t solve it, cities and small towns across this country that are again downstream from these plants, 40% of the coal plants that are creating this pollution have a drinking water intake within five miles.
DIMITRI LASCARI: Environmental and business experts have said repeatedly and increasingly in recent years that the coal industry is on that is in decline both in the United States and abroad, yet the Trump administration seems to believe that this industry has the potential to be a major source of jobs and a driver of growth in the American economy. What is your assessment as to to the potential of this industry to be a job creator and a driver of economic growth?
MARY ANNE HITT: Well, as the director of the Beyond Coal campaign, I have been part of a grassroots movement that has secured the retirement of almost half the coal-fired power plants in the United States and has also stopped the construction of close to 200 new coal plants that were on the drawing board back in the George W. Bush years. There are a lot of factors that are playing into that. Renewable energy is now cheaper than coal in many parts of the country, and so coal is having trouble competing with wind and solar. Coal energy as we have been discussing is really polluting. It’s very bad for our health. When Americans have a choice between clean and cheap energy or expensive and dirty energy, they are going to choose the clean and cheap energy.
If we’re not building any new coal plants in this country, if half of them have announced retirement and the other half are continuing to face market pressures and grassroots pressures, there’s really no pathway for the coal industry to come back. It’s an empty promise by the Trump administration frankly to score some political points, but I don’t think it’s really … As a person who lives in West Virginia, which I do, I don’t think it’s really that respectful to be making false promises to people in communities that have been hit hard by the decline of coal. I think what we need to be doing to honor the sacrifice of people in those places is diversifying the economy. That’s where we should be putting our time and energy and not on making false promises that Trump must know was well as anyone that he can’t delivery on.
DIMITRI LASCARI: Lastly, what’s next in terms of the fight over this rule relating to these effluences? Are there legal battles being waged? Are the courts likely to be of assistance here?
MARY ANNE HITT: This will be a long legal and grassroots battle. We believe that Scott Pruitt has already acted illegally in trying to delay compliance with a standard that’s finalized. The standard was finalized back in 2015. Utilities started … power plant operators started complying with it in 2016. The EPA actually does not have the authority to take an existing rule that is already being complied with and arbitrarily just change the deadline and push it back. Our view is obviously they’re not just trying to delay the standard, they’re ultimately trying to get rid of it altogether. The reason the standard was put in place in the first place was because the Clean Water Act required every five years standards for coal plant water pollution to be updated every five years. It had not happened since the 1980s, so for over three decades these standards haven’t been updated. A court ordered it to be done.
EPA acted and updated the standards, and so in just arbitrarily trying to delay and ultimately roll them back, we think that that is not going to stand up in court, and we will certainly be fighting it every step of the way along with a lot of allies.
DIMITRI LASCARI: This has been Dimitri Lascaris speaking to Mary Anne Hitt, the director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign. Thank you very much for joining us today, Mary Anne.
MARY ANNE HITT: It has been a pleasure to be with you. Thanks for having me.
DIMITRI LASCARI: This is Dimitri Lascaris for The Real News.