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Coal-burning utility boosts lobbying, may get eased regulations

New rules proposed by Trump administration would eliminate some Obama-era environmental protections for coal ash

A coal ash pile in Guayama, Puerto Rico. The pile’s owner, Arlington-based AES Corp., has asked the Trump administration to relax regulations for the disposal of toxic residues from burning coal.  (Courtesy Mabette Colon)
A coal ash pile in Guayama, Puerto Rico. The pile’s owner, Arlington-based AES Corp., has asked the Trump administration to relax regulations for the disposal of toxic residues from burning coal.  (Courtesy Mabette Colon)

On Oct. 2, 19-year-old Mabette Colon traveled from her hometown in Puerto Rico to Arlington, Virginia, to try to persuade the EPA to abandon its efforts to ease regulations for the disposal of toxic residues from burning coal.

Colon said she grew up less than a mile from what activists describe as a nine-story-tall pile of coal ash owned by Arlington-based AES Corp. in the town of Guayama. She worries that under the Trump administration revisions proposed Monday, which have not yet been publicly released, the company could pollute with impunity and further expose her community to the toxic pollutants that have sickened her neighbors.

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The company’s coal ash pile on the southern coast of Puerto Rico is for now subject to 2015 air and water contamination rules set by the Obama administration that the company in 2017 petitioned the Trump EPA to reconsider. 

“I grew up looking at it. … When I was a little girl, we would go to a beach that was close to the plant,” Colon told CQ Roll Call of the coal ash pile. “In the sand, it forms like a black cookie, and I used to play with it. I didn’t know it was toxic.”

At the public hearing last month, Colon told the EPA of health issues that have plagued her community. After suffering a fracture as a child, Colon said, she found out she had high levels of cadmium, a component of coal ash that the National Institutes of Health says causes bone damage. Also present in the ash are lithium, arsenic, mercury, cadmium and lead — all can contaminate groundwater, soil and air. Utilities dispose of these residues in ponds or in piles near their facilities.

Mabette Colon traveled to Arlington from Puerto Rico to urge the EPA to keep tough rules for coal ash. (Elvina Nawaguna/ CQ Roll Call)
Mabette Colon traveled to Arlington from Puerto Rico to urge the EPA to keep tough rules for coal ash. (Elvina Nawaguna/CQ Roll Call)

AES, meanwhile, has increased its spending on lobbying in Washington, partly to advocate for the EPA review and easing of those Obama-era regulations, every year since President Donald Trump took office.

The company so far has spent $630,000 through September of this year to lobby the EPA, the Energy and Commerce departments and the Executive Office of the President, according to disclosures filed with the Senate. The company has sought to influence energy and climate change policy, its operations in Puerto Rico and tax reform, the disclosures show.

This is the most AES has spent on federal lobbying since 2011, when rules regulating mercury emissions from coal-powered plants were being written. In comparison, AES spent $360,000 on its lobbying efforts in the last year of the Obama administration. 

A spokeswoman for AES declined to comment on its lobbying efforts or its role in the review of the regulations.

In its petition for a review of the coal ash rule, AES asked the EPA to change its “burdensome” requirements, including by delaying compliance deadlines set in the 2015 rule, reviewing the groundwater monitoring requirements and changing the way the agency regulates coal ash piles, which under the rule are regulated as landfills.

Another industry advocate, the Utility Solid Waste Activities Group, also requested changes to the rules. The group is made up of several power companies and industry trade associations. Its lobbying spending data was last updated in 2016.  

Easing regulation

Lisa Evans, a senior counsel at the environmental group EarthJustice who focuses on hazardous waste law, contends AES’s lobbying spike is “definitely related” to the company’s efforts to ease the coal ash regulations.

“The increase in lobbying expenditure coincides directly with what they feel can be accomplished under the Trump EPA,” Evans said. “If they can get their ash pile deregulated, the company is going to save a lot of money and escape liability.”

Coal ash is one of the largest forms of industrial waste produced in the United States. According to the American Coal Ash Association, 111.3 million tons of coal residue was produced in 2017. The ash is at times used as a substitute for soil as fill material in construction or for covering landfills.

Exposure to coal ash, which is also called coal combustion residuals, has been linked to health problems, including cancers and impairment of brain development in children.

Despite the known risks associated with coal ash, there was no national rule regulating its disposal until a massive spill of residue from a holding pond in Tennessee in 2008. That incident prompted the EPA to write the regulations finalized in 2015.

That rule, according to the EPA, sought to mitigate risks from disposal, including leaking of contaminants into groundwater, blowing of contaminants into the air as dust, and failure of coal ash ponds that could lead to toxic spills.

The agency would not comment for this article on its relationship with AES or the criticism directed at it for the revisions, but spokeswoman Molly Block directed CQ Roll Call to other actions, including the agency’s permitting of Oklahoma and Georgia to start regulating coal ash within their boundaries.

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist, said in July that the agency’s “sensible changes” would “improve the coal ash regulations and continue to encourage appropriate beneficial use.”

The proposed rule would remove limits on how much coal ash is used in construction and instead regulate it based on how environmentally sensitive individual construction locations may be. The proposed rule would also ease requirements for groundwater monitoring. 

In 2018, the EPA delayed closure deadlines for coal ash ponds set by the Obama administration from April 2019 to October 2020. The agency is expected to propose further changes to regulations later this year.

Hurricane Maria in 2017 renewed concerns over coal ash in Puerto Rico. Winds and flooding from the storm spread the coal ash, contaminating water and soil across the island, according to Human Rights Watch, which has filed public comments urging the EPA to maintain strong standards for coal ash disposal. Colon, a student at Inter American University of Puerto Rico, said the hurricane also exposed the coal ash in areas where it had been used for construction.

“It’s just the latest example of the Trump administration putting industry profits ahead of public health,” House Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone Jr., said when the EPA proposed changes to the regulations.

After years of pushback from environmental activists, Puerto Rico passed a law in 2017 banning the disposal of coal ash in its landfills. AES started transporting and depositing its coal ash in at least two sites on the mainland in Osceola County, Florida, and in a landfill in Charlton County, Georgia.

But public outcry in Florida prompted county commissioners to terminate the contract with AES in August, barring the company from bringing in any more coal ash.

Some of that pressure came from Rep. Darren Soto, D-Fla., who represents Osceola County. At a hearing at the Energy and Commerce Committee in May, Soto said that the “lax” regulation of coal ash is affecting his district in Florida and Puerto Rico.

“While we’re trying to transition away from coal, more and more of that toxic coal ash is remaining in Puerto Rico and recently in my district in Florida, we had an attempt to import that coal into Osceola,” Soto said.

The county initially agreed to receive $2 per ton of coal ash brought in from Puerto Rico by AES.

Critics of the EPA’s reviews of the coal ash rule have accused the Trump administration, which has proved determined to ease regulations that it says inhibit economic growth, of giving industry a green light to pollute with impunity.

 “We have this huge mountain of coal ash just in the backyard of our houses, and now the EPA giving them permission just to do whatever they want, it’s very frustrating for us,” Colon said.

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AES Corp. stepped up its lobbying during the Trump administration and may be about to get what it wants: Eased regulations on coal ash that contains toxic materials, including the company’s mountainous pile in Puerto Rico.

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