After 30 Years EPA Proposes New Coal Water Pollution Standards

Guest Blog | April 24, 2013 | Coal, Energy Policy
coal ash river power plant
EPA's proposal includes options protecting waters from toxic pollution as well as weaker standards that maintain the status quo.

On Friday, April 19, the Environmental Protection Agency met a court-ordered deadline and released long-awaited draft Coal Water Pollution Standards (also known as Effluent Limitation Guidelines or ELGs). These standards, originally scheduled for completion in 2012, are needed to replace woefully outdated rules to regulate wastewater discharges from coal ash, the toxic residue remaining when coal is burned for electricity.

This rule is separate, yet related to a long-stalled proposal from the EPA to regulate the coal-ash produced at power plants. Those rules have been delayed, and the agency hasn’t set a deadline for their release. Several advocacy organizations, including SACE, have released this statement on the proposed Coal Water Pollution Standards.

Coal ash is a serious problem in the Southeast, our region is home to 40% of the nation’s coal ash impoundments. Nearly 450 impoundments across the region contain 118 billion gallons of toxic waste – that’s enough coal ash to cover over 300,000 football fields one foot deep! Every year coal-fired power plants dump staggering amounts of toxic heavy metals into rivers, lakes and streams across the country including mercury (134,000 lbs./yr.), arsenic (5.1 million lbs./yr.), lead (6.9 million lbs./yr.), and chromium (175,000 lbs./yr.).

Even though two thirds of toxic water pollution in the country comes from coal plants, laws regulating this type of pollution have not been updated in 30 years and toxic heavy metals are ignored in 80% of wastewater permits nation-wide. Toxic water pollution from coal plants is a huge problem in Southeastern rivers, three of which were recently named America’s most endangered rivers of 2013.

The proposed rules are a step in the right direction, but our work is not done. EPA could have put forth one Coal Water Pollution Standard, designed to do the best job at protecting human health and the environment by requiring dry handling (or zero discharge) for all toxic coal combustion wastes at all power plants. Instead, they caved to industry pressure, and released a confusing “menu” of four options.

Option 3a, the weakest option, sets some limits for heavy metals, and stipulates dry handling for only one coal combustion waste, fly ash. Option 3b has all the Option 3a limits, and adds limits for mercury, arsenic, selenium and nitrate/nitrites, and in plants over 2,000 MW adds a requirement for dry handling of scrubber waste. Option 3 includes the Option 3a limits, and would apply to power plants of all sizes. Option 4a applies only to plants above 400 MW, includes all Option 3 limits, and requires dry handling for all coal combustion waste streams; fly ash, bottom ash and scrubber waste. A fifth option EPA has deemed “non-preferred”, Option 5, would require zero wastewater discharges from all power plants. Only options 4a and 5 adequately address the problem and protect communities and water ways from toxic coal ash. EPA estimates that any of these options could be implemented, at the vast majority of power plants, for far less than 1% of annual utility revenue.

The public comment period for these draft Standards will open in the next few weeks, and SACE will make it easy to make your voice heard. Keep an eye out on our Take Action page to submit your comments and let the EPA know you want strong standards that protect the waters we all rely on for fishing, drinking and agriculture. We will need everyone’s voice to match the coal industry’s well-organized and well-financed campaign to pressure EPA to pass rules good for their bottom line, instead of good for the health of America’s water resources and communities.

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