White House Altered Scientific Data on Coal Ash Hazards

Published Jan 12, 2013

What Happened: The White House altered scientific findings from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that underlined a rule to regulate pollution from coal-fired power plants. Specifically, the White House’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) carried out edits to the science-based portions of the EPA’s proposed coal ash rule such that the new rule would establish a less protective standard for regulating the amount of pollution entering water sources from power plants. Changes to the proposed rule included changing data, eliminating science-based conclusions, and downplaying the benefits of stricter coal ash standards.

Why It Matters: Political officials at the White House significantly altered EPA regulatory guidelines for stronger coal ash standards in a way that no longer aligned with the best available science on toxic waste pollution. By sideling EPA scientists, political officials obstructed the EPA from finalizing science-based regulations that can safeguard the public from the environmental and public health harms associated with coal ash wastewater pollution.

Under the Obama administration, the White House’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) overstepped the scope of their responsibilities when they made substantial edits to a proposed rule submitted by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). More specifically, the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), a division within OMB, heavily edited a proposed coal ash rule that would establish stronger regulations on coal ash contamination from coal-fired power plants. The office required changes to the proposed rule that altered scientific data, excluded scientific and technical findings, and watered down the EPA’s more stringent proposed standards.

OIRA staff pressed the EPA to eliminate language on how smokestack filtering technology did not adequately control air pollutants that were off gassed from the storage of coal ash in ponds. Additionally, OIRA staff misrepresented the EPA’s data on how much coal-fired power plants pollute surface water and reduced the projected benefits of implementing the EPA’s more stringent standards of this toxic waste product.

The primary function of OIRA is to oversee the rulemaking process to ensure that there are no inconsistencies, incompatibilities, or duplications of agency rules. However, OIRA staff have a history of making substantial changes to the basic science underlying agency regulations.

Coal ash is a toxic by-product from coal-fired power plants and contains several toxic chemicals, including arsenic, mercury, and lead. In 2014, approximately 130 million tons of coal ash was produced by coal-fired power plants. According to an analysis by Earthjustice, 95 percent of facilities dispose of coal ash waste in unlined ponds, which led to the contamination of the surrounding groundwater with toxic substances that far exceed the federal limit. Pollution from coal ash can result in severe ecological impacts as the heavy metals in coal ash can leach into waterways and cause damage to aquatic ecosystems. Research has shown that human exposure to coal ash pollution can lead to critical adverse effects such as impaired respiratory health, neurological dysfunctions in children, and higher cancer risks. Research suggests that public health harms from exposure to coal ash pollution are borne disproportionately by historically marginalized communities. A report by the Union of Concerned Scientists found that 58 percent of coal ash dump sites are located within a three-mile radius of low-income communities.

OIRA staff overstepped their role in the agency rule review process by carrying out significant changes to EPA scientists’ findings on the hazards of coal ash exposure. The White House’s actions impeded the science-based processes that are designed to keep communities, especially historically marginalized communities, across the country safe from exposure to toxic chemicals.