EPA’s Huge Water Pollution Decision and Why They Need to Get it Right

Guest Blog | August 27, 2015 | Coal, Energy Policy

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has an enormously impactful decision to make. By the end of September 2015, EPA is set to update its 30-year-old guidelines for how much pollution states can permit power plants to dump into our water, called effluent limitation guidelines or the ELG rule. EPA could issue a weak, ineffective rule or a powerful rule that could be a major turning point for public health and water quality. Please urge the Obama Administration and EPA to issue a strong ELG rule!

Several options for regulating these toxic discharges were proposed by EPA and are currently under consideration by the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB). SACE brought a delegation of water advocates from the Southeast to meet with OMB staff last week.

The problem
Every day, power plants across the country are using our public waters like an open sewer. Power plants dump 5.5 billion pounds of contaminated wastewater directly into our rivers, lakes, and bays every single year. They discharge more toxic waste than the next nine most polluting industries combined and create 50% of all toxic pollution dumped into our waterways. 40% of this pollution is within five miles of public drinking water supply intakes.

The ELG rule meant to limit the incredible amount of toxic pollution from power plants has not been updated since 1982. Meaning that many power plants across the country have had an essentially free pass to use our public water as a free dump for dangerous toxics like arsenic, boron, cadmium, lead, mercury, and selenium for 33 years.

Seizing a strategic opportunity: meeting with the Office of Management and Budget
Before EPA can finish its rule-making process, its proposed ELG rule is being reviewed by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). OMB serves the President and reviews “…all significant Federal regulations by executive agencies…to ensure that economic and other impacts are assessed as part of regulatory decision-making.” EPA is considering a number of different regulatory scenarios which vary in their stringency and protectiveness of human health and the environment. These scenarios are referred to as “Options” within the proposal. OMB already weakened EPA’s proposed ELG rule during an interagency review in 2013 by adding options with less stringent wastewater treatment requirements for utilities.

As OMB considers the costs and benefits of the final ELG rule proposal before sending it back to EPA, it’s critical for groups representing the Southeast to make the case that a strong, protective ELG rule is what our region needs to ensure healthy communities and waterways. That’s why, last Friday, SACE, Waterkeeper Alliance, Savannah Riverkeeper (GA), Black Warrior Riverkeeper (AL), and Apalachicola Riverkeeper (FL) met with the OMB, to discuss our concerns with EPA’s draft proposal.

From left to right: Tonya Bonitatibus, Savannah Riverkeeper; Adam Reaves, SACE; Pete Harrison, Waterkeeper Alliance

Why EPA needs to select Option 5
Power plant discharges are primarily from three different waste streams: fly ash ponds, bottom ash ponds, and sludge from air flue gas desulphurization (FGD) controls installed to prevent air pollution (“scrubber sludge”). During our meeting, Pete Harrison, ‎Staff Attorney with Waterkeeper Alliance explained to OMB staff that Option 5, the most protective option, is legally required because it includes the Best Available Technology for all three waste streams and is the only option that would achieve the overarching Clean Water Act goal of eliminating water pollution discharges. Option 5 would eliminate the majority of liquid toxic discharges from power plants using technologies that are available and affordable, costing less than 1 percent of the average power plant’s revenue. Considering the relatively low cost of compliance, Tonya Bonitatibus, Savannah Riverkeeper, challenged OMB to remember that, “When you say a strong ELG rule is overly burdensome to industry, what you’re really saying is, utilities, it’s ok to dump toxins on our communities.”

Unfortunately, Southeastern states do not have a good track record when it comes to protecting communities and the environment from coal ash. Nelson Brooke, Black Warrior Riverkeeper, detailed the toxic threat posed by leaking coal ash impoundments at all three power plants in his watershed. Alabama Department of Environmental Management, the agency charged with permitting discharges from these impoundments, has failed to adequately protect Alabamians from the dangers of coal ash. The agency doesn’t require Alabama Power to monitor for or limit many of the dangerous heavy metals present in coal ash to ensure they’re not being dumped into Alabama rivers and waterways. A strong ELG rule could prevent utilities across the Southeast from treating our public waters like a toxic dump.

As SACE made clear to OMB, the stakes are particularly high in the Southeast. Our region has the highest concentration of coal ash pond sites for any region in the nation (40% of the nation’s coal ash is located here). We know that the best way to deal with the inherent risks posed by aging and leaking coal ash impoundments in close proximity to major waterways is to remove the coal ash to lined, dry storage. Option 5 is one of only two options in EPA’s proposal that would require zero liquid discharge from active coal ash impoundments, greatly reducing the risk of catastrophic failures like the spill in Kingston (TN).

However, the 2014 spill along the Dan River (NC) occurred at an impoundment that was no longer receiving coal ash. These inactive or “legacy” ponds are largely unaddressed in the current ELG proposal. Dan Tonsmeire, Apalachicola Riverkeeper, urged OMB to ensure that the ELG rule includes guidance for how to regulate aging coal ash impoundments that are no longer receiving ash but remain huge potential threats to communities and waterways.

What’s next?
The ELG rule, while imperfect, could be a huge step in the right direction, especially if EPA pursues Option 5. After the rule is released at the end of September, it will be “harmonized” with EPA’s recently published coal ash rule. We can’t be sure exactly what the end result will be, but public pressure will be critical to ensuring that our waterways and communities are protected from toxic power plant pollution throughout this process. Urge the Obama Administration and EPA to issue a strong ELG rule!

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