Environmental Groups Say Obama Administration Watered Down EPA Pollution Rule

WASHINGTON -- Environmental advocacy groups have filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit accusing the White House of withholding documents the groups say show the government weakened a proposal to crack down on power plant water pollution.

The lawsuit, filed June 19 in U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia by the Environmental Integrity Project, Earthjustice and the Sierra Club, seeks documents from the White House Office of Management and Budget pertaining to an Environmental Protection Agency proposal toughening rules on power plant wastewater discharges. OMB released more than 800 pages of documents in response to the groups’ Freedom of Information request last year, but the groups said key sections were blacked out in the “vast majority” of the documents, and other records were withheld completely.

“The Obama administration worked behind the scenes to weaken the EPA’s proposal, and now they are trying to cover their tracks,” said Earthjustice attorney Thomas Cmar in a press release last week. “The public has a right to know about the political pressure that forced the EPA to rewrite its proposal to allow for much dirtier waterways and put our health at risk."

OMB did not respond to a request for comment.

The documents deal with the Steam Electric Power Generating Effluent Guidelines under the Clean Water Act, governing wastewater discharges from power plants. Those discharges can include the steam used to drive turbines, coal ash, water used in emissions scrubbers and runoff from piles of stored coal, and may contain toxic lead, mercury and arsenic. The Clean Water Act requires the EPA to periodically review and update these limits as science advances, but the rule hasn't been updated since 1982.

An early draft of an EPA proposal called for strong limits on the wastewater. The EPA submitted the proposal to the OMB for review, and the version OMB sent back included significant changes and multiple options. The EPA made its draft proposal public in April 2013.

Earthjustice said in a press release that OMB weakened the rules in order to “satisfy the concerns of power companies.”

Coal is the largest source of power plant wastewater pollution, said Jennifer Duggan, managing attorney of the Environmental Integrity Project. Her group released a study in 2013 that found there are 274 coal-fired power plants discharging coal ash and wastewater into waterways. Nearly 70 percent had no limits on how much wastewater they can release.

The public comment period for the proposed rule closed on Sept. 20, 2013. The EPA must finalize the rule by Sept. 30, 2015 under a previous legal agreement.

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