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EPA to reduce power plant toxics discharged to waterways

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UPDATED April 20 with specifics about the proposed rule.

 

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposed on April 19 a range of options to update 30-year-old standards for wastewater discharges from steam electric power plants, primarily from coal-fired plants.

The proposed "effluent limitations guidelines and standards for the steam electric power generating point source category" document seeks feedback on options to regulate for the first time discharges of mercury, arsenic, lead and other toxic heavy metals from power plants.

The proposal is issued as part of a legal settlement with the Sierra Club and Defenders of Wildlife.

The need

Steam electric power plants account for more than half of all toxic pollutants discharged into streams, rivers and lakes from permitted industrial facilities in the United States, the agency said.

High exposure to these types of pollutants has been linked to neurological damage and cancer as well as to damage to the circulatory system, kidneys and liver, the agency said.

"For example, each year nearly 65,000 pounds of lead and 3,000 pounds of mercury are discharged, leading to lowered IQs among children exposed to these pollutants via drinking water or by eating fish," the agency wrote in a fact sheet. "Additionally, each year nearly 80,000 pounds of arsenic is released into surface waters, increasing the risk of cancers and other health effects in humans exposed to these pollutants through drinking water and by eating fish."

These heavy metals also can contaminate sediment in waterways and harm aquatic life and wildlife, including causing large-scale fish kills.

Regulation of these discharges is called for because of these health and environmental effects and because improvements in technology have brought affordable control within reach, the agency said.

And it's needed because power plant pollutants previously discharged to the air increasingly are captured, particularly in coal ash, and diverted to wastewater.

"As a result, each year the pollutant discharges from this industry are increasing in volume and total mass," accounting for their high share now of total toxic discharges to waterways.

Rule, costs

The proposed rule would establish new requirements for wastewaters associated with flue gas desulfurization, fly ash, bottom ash, flue gas mercury control, combustion residual leachate from landfills and surface impoundments, nonchemical metal cleaning wastes and gasification of fuels such as coal and petroleum coke.

Most of this is related to coal combustion residuals — CCRs, often referred to as "coal ash" — from coal-fired plants. Of the nation's 2,200 or so coal, natural gas, nuclear, oil and petroleum coke fueled steam electric generating units at 1,100 power plants,  about half are coal-fired units, and those are the primary source of the pollutants addressed by the proposal.

Eight options are proposed, with four options identified as "preferred." The options are complex in their details, but they differ in the numbers of waste streams covered, the size of the units controlled and the stringency of the treatment controls to be imposed.

EPA estimates that the regulations would reduce pollutant discharges by 0.5 billion to 2.6 billion pounds annually and reduce water use by 50 billion to 103 billion gallons per year, depending on the options chosen,

The agency said it will ensure that the final rule will protect public health while being sensible and achievable. In line with that goal, the standards would be phased in between 2017 and 2022 and would rely on technologies already installed at a number of plants. In addition, under every preferred option in the proposal, more than half of the nation's coal-fired power plants would be in compliance without incurring any additional cost.

The total cost is estimated at $185 million to $954 million per year.

What that means for the household electric bill, in the primarily coal-burning region that includes West Virginia, is estimated at 14 cents to 60 cents  per month.

The agency also announced its intention to align this rule with a related rule for coal ash originally proposed in 2010 and still in development under much scrutiny from the coal and power industries and citizens' groups. The two rules would apply to many of the same facilities and would work together to reduce pollution associated with coal ash and related wastes. EPA is seeking comment to ensure that both final rules are aligned to reduce pollution efficiently and minimize regulatory burdens.

The Sierra Club, which sued to have the effluent standards updated, applauded the proposal, calling the standards in their strongest form "commonsense and affordable."

Next steps

Public comment on the proposed rule will be accepted for 60 days after publication in the Federal Register at http://www.regulations.gov; use docket ID number EPA-HQOW-2009-0819. Comments also may be emailed, with reference to the docket ID number, to OW-Docket@epa.gov or mailed to Water Docket, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Mail code: 4203M, 1200 Pennsylvania Ave., NW., Washington, D.C. 20460.

The agency is under a consent decree to take final action by May 22, 2014.

History and supporting documents are available on the agency's steam electric power generating effluent guidelines web  page.