House Committee Demands “Some Damn Data” Over Clean-Water, Coal-Ash Rollbacks

Peter DeFazio House coal ash
Congressman Peter DeFazio criticized the E.P.A. for making factually unsound regulatory decisions. Courtesy House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee

The Environmental Protection Agency needs “some damn data” before it issues a proposal. That’s what Congressman Peter DeFazio, the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, told Dave Ross, the assistant administrator for the E.P.A.’s Office of Water, in a wide-ranging hearing on capitol hill today. The discussion centered on the Trump administration’s ongoing efforts to roll back clean-water and coal-ash regulations, to the tremendous displeasure of environmentalists, watch-dog groups, and Democratic lawmakers—and no doubt to the detriment of Americans’ health.

A large portion of the hearing focused on the E.P.A.’s recent, and highly controversial, decision to repeal a 2015 regulation called the Waters of the United States Rule, which expanded protections for wetlands and seasonal and rain-dependent streams under the 1972 Clean Water Act. Farming and construction interests criticized the 2015 rule from the get-go, claiming that it carries unnecessary regulatory burdens. Environmentalists, outdoorsmen, and basically everyone who is not a farmer or a real-estate developer widely supports the measure. (Field & Stream published a list of 13 facts and an explainer about the rule if you’re unfamiliar.)

When pressed by DeFazio, Ross admitted that he didn’t have sufficient metrics or data to say how many miles of U.S. streams and wetlands could lose federal protection now that the E.P.A. has scrapped the 2015 clean-water rule. “So you’re proposing to undo protections on intermittent streams, ephemeral streams, and wetlands, and you don’t know the impact of what you’re proposing would be?” Defazio asked. He said his committee estimated that 50 percent of those streams and wetlands in the U.S. would be affected. “We do not have the data,” Ross replied.

President Trump has made his ambivalence, or even disdain, for science clear in regards to the environment. Throughout the hearing, DeFazio and other Democrats took Ross and Trump’s E.P.A. to task for making factually unsound regulatory decisions and, in doing so, putting the American public at risk. “You people have the gall to dismantle half a century of progress,” DeFazio added, with a raised hand pointed at Ross. Congresswoman Grace Napolitano told Ross at another point, “I can only imagine how much polluters love what you’re doing.”

DeFazio also brought up the 2008 Kingston coal-ash spill, in which a power plant, operated by the Tennessee Valley Authority, spewed a billion gallons of coal sludge over 300 acres outside Knoxville, Tennessee. As Men’s Journal detailed in a recent feature story, 40 people are believed to have died as a result of having helped to clean up the mess. More than 300 others are ill. DeFazio chastised the E.P.A. for rolling back coal-ash regulations that were put in place as a direct result of the 2008 Kingston spill. “So what if we inundated thousands of acres with toxic materials, kill some more people—whatever,” he said, pretending to imitate Ross and the E.P.A. DeFazio noted the minuscule cost that these coal-ash regulations would have had on utility companies and how the regulations would have reduced the amount of toxic coal ash that enters the earth by some 90 percent, helping to safeguard the nation’s water supply.

Ross countered by saying that the E.P.A. was following “the rule of law” in rolling back clean-water and coal-ash regulations. Congressman Steve Cohen, a Democrat from Tennessee, responded, “We don’t need to find legal ways to get around protecting groundwater.” The 1972 Clean Water Act, “is one of the good things that Richard Nixon did,” he added, and he encouraged House Republicans to follow the former president’s example.

Each year the nation’s 400 coal-fired power plants produce about 100 million tons of coal ash, a by-product of burning coal to produce electricity. Under current E.P.A. guidelines, utility companies can dump this coal ash straight into unlined, earthen holding ponds—though not without consequence: Research suggests that 90 percent of these ponds leak and contaminate groundwater, endangering human health. Yet the E.P.A., despite a legion of evidence, does not consider coal ash a hazardous material. “This is all very political,” said DeFazio of the agency’s recent rollbacks, “and it’s very short-sighted. We are no longer doing enforcement.”

You can watch the full hearing here.

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