The Environmental Protection Agency has proposed two rules that would ease Obama-era requirements for disposal of two streams of waste that result from burning coal to produce electricity—the storage of coal ash and the discharge of contaminated water into waterways.

The Obama administration published regulations in 2015 after an unlined surface impoundment at a Tennessee Valley Authority coal-fired plant in Harriman, Tenn., ruptured in 2008 and released more than 1 billion gallons of coal ash. In 2014, a Duke Energy impoundment spilled 39,000 gallons of coal ash and 27,000 gallons of wastewater into the Dan River in North Carolina. The coal waste is known to contain arsenic, lead, mercury, chromium and other toxic substances.

In announcing the proposed regulations on Nov. 4, EPA said it reviewed engineering and construction data and found that not all utilities will be able to meet a 2020 deadline to stop taking waste in unlined pits. 

Under the new proposal, utilities would be allowed to request extensions ranging from three months to five years to keep unlined coal ash pits open. Coal-fired plants that plan to cease operations can continue to place coal ash in unlined surface impoundments, but those that are smaller than 40 acres must be closed by October 2023. Plants with impoundments larger than 40 acres must be closed no later than October 2028 under the proposed rule.

The extensions are a giveaway to large, polluting coal ash utilities, says Frank Holleman, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center. “We have seen in the South that coal ash lagoons can be shut down quickly and that the utilities can remove the coal ash to a safe, dry, lined storage,” he said. 

A second EPA proposal would let utilities use less costly wastewater pollution control technologies than the Obama-era rule required and give them flexibility on implementation. EPA says the change would save utilities $175 million annually and reduce pollution discharges beyond the previous rule. Environmental group Earthjustice said, however, that the rule allows utilities to use less-effective treatment methods on wastewater. 

West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey applauded EPA’s actions. Once the proposals are published in the Federal Register, they will be subject to a 60-day comment period and public hearings before they become final.