On Monday, the Trump administration put in place new regulations for how coal-fired power plants must discard of wastewater tainted by pollutants including lead, selenium, and arsenic, relaxing the steps that power companies must take before this liquid is released into local waterways.
Environmental Protection Agency head Andrew Wheeler, himself a former coal lobbyist, praised the change as a way to “reduce pollution and save jobs at the same time.” But environmental advocates anticipate the change will expose the 1.1 million Americans who live within three miles of a coal plant that releases chemicals into a public waterway to a greater level of toxic chemicals. Over a decade ago, the EPA was already aware that Americans exposed to coal-ash wastewater have as high as a one in 50 chance of getting cancer from drinking water containing arsenic, a common waste product.
For years, the EPA under Trump has made it easier for coal companies to pollute and keep older, dirtier plants online, with the justification that it would save enough money for the industry to employ more workers. (That such changes would undo the Obama administration’s environmental legacy was either a bonus or an impetus for his sweep of anti-regulatory rollbacks.) But coal in the Trump era has faced a significant shock despite the president’s hand on the scale. Since Trump came into office, the industry, which employs around 50,000 nonseasonal workers, has lost 1,000 jobs. Two years ago, coal plant retirements came close to an all-time high, while last year, coal-fired electricity generation fell to a 42-year low.
Despite his efforts, the president has been unable to turn around an industry in which more than half of operating coal factories worldwide are already more expensive to run than to build new renewable plants. This year is expected to mark the first in which renewable energy surpasses that produced by coal in the United States, due in part to electric companies cutting back on unclean energy amid low demand during the pandemic. Just five years ago, coal was the largest single source of net energy in the United States; it was surpassed during the last election by natural gas during the fracking boom.
“We’ve ended the war on beautiful, clean coal and we’re putting our coal miners back to work,” Trump said on the campaign trail in 2016. “That you know better than anybody.” But that push to support coal companies has come at the expense of coal miners. In 2019, the administration cut a tax that halved the amount that firms had to pay to the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund, in an industry in which rates of black lung are on the rise.