(CNN) - As one of his first major acts as acting director of the US Environmental Protection Agency, Andrew Wheeler signed and finalized new standards overseeing coal ash, the leftover waste created by power plants that burn coal. The new rules are a revision of 2015 regulations that were put into place by the Obama administration after two significant industrial coal ash spills.
Signed into rules on Wednesday, the new regulations put more authority back in the hands of industry and states to regulate their own waste. For example, states can tailor disposal requirements to specific sites. They also "provide states and utilities much-needed flexibility in the management of coal ash, while ensuring human health and the environment are protected," Wheeler said in a statement. "Our actions mark a significant departure from the one-size-fits-all policies of the past and save tens of millions of dollars in regulatory costs."
Prior to joining the EPA as second-in-command of the agency in April this year, Wheeler was a lobbyist with Faegre Baker Daniels consulting, where one of his clients was Murray Energy, "the country's largest underground coal mining company." According to his recusal statement, he also represented a number of other energy companies, including Energy Fuels Resources Inc, Growth Energy, and Xcel Energy. In that statement, Wheeler said he would abstain from participating in any decisions involving former clients for the next two years.
Energy industry groups have been actively trying to revise the standards since President Trump came into office. The Utility Solids Waste Activities Group, an industry organization representing more than 110 utility groups, sent a petition to the agency challenging the 2015 regulations on coal ash containment. It called the regulations too rigorous and costly.
According to the petition, the rule resulted "in significant economic and operational impacts to coal-fired power generation," claiming that it was such a burden that "the economic viability of coal-fired power plants is jeopardized."
Industry trade groups such as the Edison Electric Institute previously argued that proposed changes to the standards weren't a rollback, but rather, a way to better tailor to the needs of each site. "We believe (states) are in a better spot to look at local issues. The folks at the state regulatory agencies have a much better feel for the issues at hand," Edison Electric Institute's Jim Roewer, who is also the executive director of the Utility Solid Waste Activities Group.
In a statement from the Utility Solid Waste Activities Group, Roewer said "this action provides the regulatory certainty needed to make investment decisions to ensure compliance and the continued protection of health and the environment."
The EPA said more of the previously proposed changes to the 2015 coal ash rules will be addressed later, and additional changes will be proposed, as well.
Environmental advocates said the new rules are a gift to industry.
"This administration is granting the wishes of the lobbyists and the lawyers for the coal ash utilities and is turning its back on the families and communities across America that are suffering the consequences of primitive coal ash disposal," said Frank Holleman, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center.
Coal ash is one of the most-generated forms of industrial waste in the country. According to the American Coal Ash Association, about 110 million tons are generated each year. About half of all coal ash produced in the United States is recycled into construction materials such as concrete or wallboard; it makes these materials stronger. However, that leaves about 50 million tons of coal ash that need to be disposed of every year.
Historically, when coal was burned, plants would send the ash out of smokestacks, creating dark plumes of smoke. Now, scrubbers and filters collect much of the ash. It may not escape into the air anymore, but it does have to go somewhere. Traditionally, power plants mixed the leftover ash with water and sluiced it into unlined pits, where the ash would settle to the bottom.
Sometimes, these ponds were dug into the groundwater table -- water that can be pulled up by private drinking wells, or that eventually makes its way into drinking water. Many of these sites also sit along the banks of rivers, lakes and streams, separating waste from waters with nothing more than earthen banks.
According to the EPA, there are over 1,000 coal ash disposal sites across the country, many of them constructed in the 1950s and 1960s, well before any sort of regulations.
Holleman, the Southern Environmental Law Center attorney, said he can't imagine a more precarious way to manage this waste.
"Millions of tons of industrial waste directly on the banks of major drinking water reservoirs that serve hundreds of thousands of people," he said, "that's a recipe for disaster."
In the past decade, there have been two major coal ash spills in the US. In 2008, a break in a dam at the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston power plant sent over a billion gallons of coal ash cascading into the Clinch River. The black sludge blanketed over 300 acres, inundating the area around Kingston, Tennessee. The spill destroyed three homes and damaged a dozen others. Scientists found fish contaminated with high levels of arsenic and selenium months after the spill.