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Ameren coal ash pond

Ameren's Meramec Energy Center looms beyond an area where a coal ash pond has been capped with a liner and soil. Though the company aims to cap all its ash ponds, critics say leaving the material in unlined basins underground poses a continued threat to groundwater. Photo by Bryce Gray, bgray@post-dispatch.com

The Trump administration’s move to relax regulations regarding disposal of coal ash and wastewater produced by coal-burning power plants is yet another example of the president’s environmental defiance — fueled by a combination of fealty to big industry and pandering to the portion of his base that revels in tearing down anything that smacks of Obama-era progress. It’s also President Donald Trump’s latest move to prop up the struggling coal industry at a time when America should be transitioning away from it.

Burning coal produces, among many other pollutants, coal ash, a powdery waste containing arsenic, mercury and lead. For many years, coal plants stored it in ponds or buried it in unlined pits, risking seepage into groundwater. The practice is at the center of continuing controversy over Ameren Missouri’s plans to leave coal-ash ponds in place with a promise to monitor groundwater, rather than excavating the waste to more secure holding places, as environmentalists insist should be done.

The dangers of the leave-it-in-place approach were demonstrated in Tennessee in 2008, when a catastrophic coal-ash spill inundated area rivers with toxins. That prompted 2015 federal requirements that plants begin phasing out use of unlined storage by 2018.

But Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency announced Monday it was loosening that deadline and easing the rules in other ways, effectively giving some plants another five years to comply. At the same time, the EPA said it was easing another 2015 regulation regarding discharge of coal-plant wastewater.

The sum effect of all this rolling back of necessary pollution-control reforms is to allow coal plants to continue cost-saving (or profit-protecting) storage practices that are known to risk contamination of water supplies — all for the sake of propping up a coal industry that contributes heavily to global warming by pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

Monday also marked the start of the U.S. officially pulling out of the Paris climate accord, fulfilling Trump’s cynical and irresponsible vow to abandon a climate-change mitigation agreement that every other nation has signed.

Coal is struggling now with competition from cheaper natural gas and renewable energy sources like wind and solar. Yet the administration is doing all it can to prevent a positive transformation and keep coal — and all its environmental baggage — in the running.

There’s no great mystery as to why: Trump’s base includes struggling coal-mining communities. Instead of false promises, those communities deserve help to transition to tomorrow’s new energy reality. The coal industry backs Trump because it doesn’t want to spend what it should to clean up its waste.

As usual on environmental issues, the administration is putting politics ahead of public health and the survival of the planet.