Proposed national environmental policy rollbacks could have major implications for local residents, ranging from contaminated water to limited assistance on electric bills for low-income residents, environmental groups warn.
The Trump administration has frozen or proposed to overturn dozens of environmental regulations, many before they went into effect, in a plan to ease government oversight on coal, oil and other industries.
"If we don't have confidence that there is someone at the head of the [Environmental] Protection Agency that is using science, then we lose ground," Southern Alliance of Clean Energy Executive Director Stephen Smith said.
Smith said the current state of affairs is like a car wheel held on by lug nuts. EPA leader Scott Pruitt and the rest of the Trump administration are loosening those lug nuts with every rollback, he said. Eventually the wheel is going to fall off.
The regulations — almost entirely put in place by the Obama administration — were aimed at cutting dependence on nonrenewable energy while taking steps to ensure a more environmentally safe world.
However, there are others who believe the Obama administration went too far in its oversight, hamstringing power producers in the name of cautiousness without worrying about how it would affect jobs and the economy.
"Repealing [the Clean Power Plan] would close a chapter of regulatory overreach that set standards without regard to the steep costs or availability of technology necessary to meet them," the National Mining Association wrote in a release after the repeal was proposed. "It would have destroyed additional baseload power assets, leaving our economy more vulnerable to reliability concerns and higher costs with trivial environmental benefits."
Since President Donald Trump took office in January, his administration has proposed a complete overhaul of the country's environmental plan. Trump has proposed to scrap the Clean Power Plan, signed an executive order to dismantle much of the Obama administration's environmental work, halted environmental studies, proposed budget cuts, and undertaken an overhaul of the EPA. Trump appointed Pruitt to lead the EPA, even after he spent much of his time as Oklahoma attorney general fighting the agency; named Rick Perry leader of the Energy Department, an agency he once said he wanted to eliminate; and named a scientist who worked for the chemical industry the top deputy of the EPA's toxic chemical unit.
"My biggest concern is protecting our clean water and our public health in the face of what seems to be a full-scale shift to being concerned about cost on industry rather than the burden that pollution imposes on our community," said Southern Environmental Law Center attorney Amanda Garcia.
Most of the proposed changes have yet to take effect. While it's highly unlikely, the administration has the ability to reverse course.
"We want to see EPA do their job. That's the most important thing," Smith said. "We need them not to just be protecting special interest."
Other groups such as Americans for Prosperity praised Trump for undoing "devastating" and "job-killing" regulations put in place by the Obama administration.
COAL ASH CONCERN
One of the most direct local concerns is the regulation of coal ash, Southern Environmental Law Center attorneys say. Regulations under the Clean Water Act, which has been significantly slashed under the Trump administration, set nationwide standards and aimed to limit toxic coal ash pollutants.
Rules within the Clean Water Act would have set strict minimum standards on how utilities managed disposal of coal ash, Garcia said, but those are being reviewed and the group doesn't believe a replacement rule will be enacted that stringently regulates the pollution of coal ash.
Deregulation would ease rules governing the handling, disposal and movement of the coal remains that are not considered safe to breathe or drink.
"It's absolutely a water quality and drinking water concern," SELC attorney Blan Holman said.
Garcia believes the rollback of coal ash rules could have one of the biggest impacts on the Chattanooga area, which is downstream from the Kingston and Bull Run fossil plants and other facilities with coal ash. There's concern dangerous levels of coal ash, especially through rain runoff, would find its way into the Tennessee River, floating downstream toward the Scenic City.
"They haven't done much to address the coal ash that remains in those pits, and in many cases, is in perpetual contact with groundwater which then carries it into the river and streams," she said.
IMPACT ON LOW-INCOME COMMUNITY
The Clean Power Plan jump-started a conversation about low-income energy efficiency, putting policies in place to help those who need it most, said Janet McCabe, the Obama-era acting EPA air chief who helped craft the plan.
"One of the casualties of the proposed Clean Power Plan repeal would be a lack of interest and investment in low-income energy efficiency," which would save poor people money on their electric bills, she said.
The program provided additional credit for investment in low-income programs but has been halted under the Trump administration.
"People are aware of this challenge, and it was getting increased attention with the Clean Power Plan," Garcia said.
McCabe warned of more widespread impacts, saying proposed cuts to the EPA budget would hurt local programs and hamper emergency rescue operations during environmental disasters.
The deregulation also takes away some oversight of the Tennessee Valley Authority. The public utility plans decades in advance and uses regulation to guide decisions, McCabe said.
"TVA certainly was focused on the future of plants and how it was going to provide electricity," she said. "The way it affects them is they no longer have certainty from the federal government that this is the plan moving forward."
TVA was poised to feel the biggest impact in the region from the Trump administration's deregulation. The rollbacks directly impacted the power and coal industries the Obama administration had significantly regulated. However, the agency was already on a path to use less coal and become more environmentally conscious while reducing electricity rates, spokesman Scott Fiedler said.
"There's no effect on TVA," he said. "We've invested, over the last five years, $16 billion into our system to make it more efficient, more effective and cleaner."
TVA was focusing on renewable energy before being required to do so and will continue that focus even if it's not mandated, he said.
McCabe, Smith and Garcia each agreed TVA has taken major steps toward limiting fossil fuel use and increasing renewable energy. However, they believe the regulations were necessary to guide the agency's goal-setting.
Smith was especially worried the agency would backslide without federal guidelines.
"We're already starting to see TVA move that way. I advise the TVA board, and I have seen senior staff sending signals that they are not as interested as they were just a few years ago, even a few months ago, with what they want to do with clean energy and clean technology. I think that's a direct result of the rhetorical initiatives that are coming out of this administration and the EPA."
Fiedler said that's not going to happen.
The utility, which three decades ago generated more than half of its electricity from coal, has cut that share in half and expects to hit 20 percent by 2020. It has shuttered about half of the 59 coal-fired units it once operated and is preparing to idle other units in Memphis and Johnsonville within the next year.
Although Trump's EPA has scrapped the Clean Power Plan, TVA still expects to cut its carbon emissions by 60 percent by 2020 from the 2005 level, in line with the Clean Power Plan goals.
TVA has been on a path to cleaner energy for decades, Fiedler said, and that's not something the company is going to change.
"We're continuing our path to a cleaner future," he said.
Regulatory fluctuation is common at the federal level, especially after an election. Deregulation is especially common when a Democrat in the White House is replaced by a Republican, said environmental lawyer Mike Mallen of Miller & Martin.
"The big move is the change of the guard and change of administrations," Mallen said. "There's migration from Democratic policy, which normally favors more regulation and stricter environmental regulations, to a Republican administration, a policy leaning more toward laissez faire and less regulation."
Mallen believed the Trump administration would go further than it has. Many Obama-era policies remain in place and continue to go into effect, rules such as a mandate requiring electronic reporting of injuries to a central database and others.
The Trump administration has talked tough on environmental deregulation, and in many cases followed through, but Mallen believes public perception is not entirely accurate regarding the scope of deregulation.
"The knee-jerk reaction is not proving itself to be true 100 percent," he said
There are others who don't think the regulations have had much impact at the local level, yet.
"We're so new into this administration that we haven't seen it make tremendous impact, in my opinion, at state and local levels," said J. Wayne Cropp, corporate environmental attorney at the Baker Donelson law firm.