Sierra Club: Trump Administration Attempts to Undercut Toxic Water Pollution Protections for Coal Plants

By: Daniel Pablo Willis, Sierra Club

With Rollback, Trump Administration Attempts to Undercut Toxic Water Pollution Protections for Coal Plants

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Former coal lobbyist and EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler announced another proposed rollback of a key water toxics safeguard today — a move that may embolden coal plant owners to try to continue their harmful toxic discharges. Formally known as the 2015 Effluent Limitation Guidelines, implementation of the water toxics rule was infamously frozen in 2017 by Scott Pruitt, Wheeler’s scandal-ridden predecessor, and then reinstated. 

As a result, communities have borne the burden of these toxic discharges, despite the Clean Water Act’s requirement that EPA regularly strengthens standards to remove, and ultimately eliminate, pollutants from coal plant wastewater.

The Trump administration’s rollback makes it all the more important that the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) continues to implement the law and protect Marylanders from toxic water pollution caused by coal plants. 

The water toxics rule issued in 2015 represented a significant step towards cleaner water and reflected years of work by EPA staff, informed by numerous technical and scientific studies, public hearings, and hundreds of thousands of comments demanding strong standards to combat toxic water contamination from coal plants.

Before the 2015 water toxics rule, water standards had not been updated since 1982 and it took significant legal action from public health groups to get EPA to develop and finalize the 2015 update.

In 2018, after years of advocacy by community leaders and environmentalists, Maryland issued permits to three of its major coal plants that demanded considerable reductions in toxic metal discharges in compliance with ELG limits.

In 2019, three separate Maryland judges sided with local environmental organizations and against coal plant owners to allow the implementation of the permits. 

EPA’s own data show that coal plants are the number-one source of industrial toxic water pollution in the country—mercury, lead, arsenic, cadmium, selenium, and dozens of other metals that are extremely harmful to human health and ecosystems even in very small quantities. It is crucial that MDE continues to protect Marylanders health and the environment from toxic water pollution.   

In response, the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign representative David Smedick released the following statement 

“Yet again Trump and his fossil-fuel industry friends are proposing to relax restrictions on dangerous, toxic coal pollution. We can do better, and we can certainly do better in Maryland. The Maryland Department of the Environment needs to continue advancing and enforcing new toxic water pollution permits for our coal plants. Maryland still has six large coal plants operating and we must do a better job limiting their toxic pollution in the near-term and finalizing a plan for  moving completely off coal in the coming years.”

In response, Southern Maryland Group Chair and Maryland Sierra Club Vice Chair Rosa Hance released the following statement

“It’s disappointing to hear that yet again the federal government is attempting to allow the fossil fuel industry to externalize their environmental and public health cost burden on local communities.  The Sierra Club is working hard across local, state and national entities to keep our beloved waters clean of toxic metal discharge. All Maryland rivers are part of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed and our very cultural identity: recreation, economy, habitat, and natural beauty is what makes Maryland unique.”


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