C lutching a toy panda bear for comfort, 8-year-old Alivia Hopkins had traveled from Illinois to stand atop this chair in the Washington Ballroom of the Doubletree Hilton Hotel in Arlington, Va.
A Daisy Scout, Hopkins wore badges on her sash, tassels on her knee socks and a bow in her hair. Before a panel of three Environmental Protection Agency officials, she peered over the podium and delivered a speech, imploring them not to weaken federal coal ash rules.
“Be respectful of the Earth’s resources,” Hopkins said, her voice soft but strong. “Don’t contaminate our beautiful world. I want my family and pets to be safe. Keep those I love safe.”
Hopkins was one of 40 people — some from as far away as New Mexico and Puerto Rico — who spoke at the first of three public comment sessions held by the EPA on proposed revisions  to the 2015 coal combustion rules, also known as CCRs. All but two people, who were associated with the utilities industry, asked that the rules either remain as is, or even better, be strengthened, for reasons ranging from environmental to public health to property rights.
While the CCRs could be stronger, they have been credited with establishing cleanup and monitoring requirements for coal ash impoundments. The rules have instilled greater transparency by mandating that utilities must post groundwater sampling results  on a publicly accessible website — data that communities can use to advocate for stricter environmental and health protections.
Yet EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt wants to weaken these rules to save utilities money — nationwide, just $25 million to $100 million in total, a pittance for companies that routinely report billions in profit. Pruitt also shortened the public comment period from the standard 90 days to just 45.
The existing rules were prompted by two disasters: the TVA ash spill in Kingston, Tenn., and the Dan River spill in Eden, NC. And the regulations may have even averted at least one more. “It helped save us from a catastrophic event,” said Ward Archer, president of Protect Our Aquifer, in Memphis. A leaking, unlined coal ash pond rests above an aquifer, threatening the drinking water source for a city of 652,000 people.
The Tennessee Valley Authority wanted to pump water from the aquifer to cool the steam used to generate electricity. Since the pond and the aquifer are hydrologically connected, that could have allowed contaminants, including arsenic and lead, to enter the drinking water supply. Armed with data — disclosed by the TVA by law — citizens complained. The TVA abandoned the project.
The proposed rules would also give states more latitude in regulating coal ash. But people who live in states where the rules are lax — subject to the vicissitudes of legislators and political appointees in the executive branch — could have less protection than those residing in states with stringent regulations.
“The very reason we have federal rules is because states failed to protect us from Kingston and the Dan River,” said Frank Holleman, senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center. “The state agencies can’t stand up to the utilities.”
Poorer states and territories without the money to manage their own coal ash programs would also be disadvantaged. Puerto Rico, for example, said Mabette Colon, who lives in Guayama, is still recovering from Hurricane Maria. The trees between a coal-fired power plant and her home were blown down in the historic storm. “The noise and the smell, at all hours of the day. It doesn’t allow us to sleep. I’m here to fight for our rights and health.”
Not only is drinking water at risk from coal ash contamination, but so is the air, said Henry Cole, who worked for the EPA in air quality. He recalled seeing “clouds of coal ash” near a Nevada site blowing beyond the utility property. Tests subsequently showed high levels of Chromium 6, which has been detected in drinking water wells in North Carolina, in residential areas.
Cole urged his former employer to “strengthen, not weaken” the rules. “I’m disappointed that Pruitt is weakening them,” he said.
Two industry representatives did speak in favor of relaxing the regulations. Danny Gray of the American Coal Ash Association asked the EPA to extend closure deadlines for impoundments where the ash is designated as “beneficial use.” That includes using the ash in concrete, runways and road surfaces.
Gray also supported the EPA’s recommendation that the ash could be used as grading material for the new landfills. But Gray took that a step further: He wants to use coal ash to cap the landfills. “As long as the proposed cap meets the requirement,” he said, “there is no difference between soil and ash.”
There is actually a substantial difference. The components of coal ash — radium, boron, cadmium, lead, arsenic, antimony, thallium and others — are highly toxic. Some of these chemicals cause cancer.
Jim Roewer, executive director of the Utility Solid Waste Activities Group supported “risk-based standards.” These rules would be specific to each coal ash site and vulnerable to cherry-picking of data and of utility-friendly interpretation. For example, if the rules go into effect, in North Carolina, the cleanup standards for Belews Creek could be different than those governing Mayo, which could be different than those for Roxboro, just a few miles away.
Roewer’s reasoning was that the EPA had designated coal ash as non-hazardous waste. However, he did not mention that the agency did so under industry pressure — and that “non-hazardous” has now become a mantra for the utilities trying to assuage residents’ fears about the toxicity of the ash in their drinking water.
In Wilsonville, Ala., a 269-acre coal ash pond in unlined and leaking into limestone upstream from a public drinking water system. “Alabama Power thinks the best thing to do is cap it in place,” said the town’s mayor, Lee McCarty. “The Alabama Department of Environmental Management thinks it’s a good idea, too.
“Alabama’s utility has a monopoly and has far more resources than the state agency that regulates them,” McCarty went on. “If this is the best the EPA can do, then change your name to the Utilities Protection Agency.”