A representative with the Hoosier Environmental Council joined dozens of people Tuesday in speaking against a proposed rollback of EPA's regulations governing the disposal of waste from coal-fired power plants.
Indra Frank, the organization's environmental health and water policy director, is leading the Hoosier Environmental Council's review of recently released data on groundwater near Indiana's 15 coal-fired power plants.
She traveled to Arlington, Virginia, to testify Tuesday at the Environmental Protection Agency's only public hearing about its proposed rollback of coal ash rules finalized in 2015. Speakers were given four minutes each.
"There are so many things wrong with the proposed amendments, I had to be selective in my comments," Frank said.
The Coal Combustion Residual Rule that EPA established in 2015 requires utilities to check groundwater under coal ash sites and issue public reports. The rule also requires states to prohibit the establishment of new dumps, provide for the closing or upgrading of existing dumps, and establish compliance schedules under the Resource Recovery and Conservation Act.
The Trump administration says the proposed changes to the rule could save utilities $100 million annually in compliance costs and give states more flexibility in enforcement.
The Hoosier Environmental Council said its preliminary review of groundwater data released by NIPSCO on March 2 showed several contaminants in groundwater at the utility's three Northwest Indiana coal-fired energy plants exceed drinking water or other health-based standards.
The contaminants include arsenic at the Michigan City Generating Station, thallium at the Bailly Generating Station in Chesterton and radium, molybdenum, lithium, arsenic and boron at the R.M. Schahfer Generating Station in Wheatfield. The contaminants can cause a range of health problems. The council recommended residents who live within one mile of the plants and use private wells for drinking get their water tested for metals, radium and sodium.
NIPSCO said its facilities comply with existing environmental regulations, and data collected to date does not indicate any potential risk or threat to public health.
NIPSCO would not support regulatory rollbacks that would be detrimental to public or environmental health, spokesman Nick Meyer said.
'So many things wrong'
Frank urged EPA not to allow calculation of an "alternative groundwater protection standard."
"That's a way of saying, 'What concentration are we going to allow in groundwater before something needs to be cleaned up?" Frank said.
EPA should use drinking water standards, drinking water health advisories and tapwater screening levels as groundwater protection standards at coal ash disposal sites, she said.
"These are health-based standards that have already been carefully calculated by scientists with the right technical expertise using the best available data," she said.
Proposed changes to the rule would allow utilities to make the calculation themselves, she said.
"That situation is fraught with conflict of interest," she said.
Frank also urged EPA not to allow calculation of groundwater protection standards based on "potential receptors" if groundwater is not being used for drinking.
"That means what they're doing is just writing off that aquifer," she said. "Who's to say the aquifer won't be used in the future?"
Additionally, Frank asked EPA to strengthen its definition for "background" samples, which are supposed to be taken from groundwater not affected by coal ash ponds. In Indiana, 11 of 15 reports showed background samples were impacted by coal ash, she said.
Residents whose health has been affected by coal ash and doctors were among those testifying in Virginia.
Activists: Risks to kids ignored
Environmental organizations have criticized EPA's proposed rules for ignoring risks to children and removing a requirement that utilities immediately clean up after a coal ash spill.
Children are particularly susceptible to risks posed by contaminants in coal ash because their bodies are still developing and they can suffer greater effects at lower doses, said Abel Russ, an attorney for the Environmental Integrity Project.
The proposed rule threatens to remove requirements for industry to post information about coal ash ponds on publicly accessible websites, according to written testimony by Earthjustice attorney Lisa Evans.
"Coal ash is a hazardous, toxic waste that for far too long went completely unregulated with terrible consequences for public health," Evans said. "To have regulations that were finally put in place after years of study and consultation yanked out from under us is devastating and heartbreaking."
The Indiana Department of Environmental Management initially adopted EPA’s 2015 rule and in December began the process of updating its coal ash rules. Updated state regulations will be at least as stringent as EPA’s, IDEM said.
NIPSCO plans to release details later this year about the planned closure of coal ash ponds at its three Northwest Indiana generating stations. Additionally, the utility will be investing $193 million this year in related environmental upgrades to further improve coal ash management within its operations, Meyer said.