EPA proposes rule to lessen water pollution from power plants

Environmental Protection Agency EPA proposes water discharge rule coal nuclear oil natural gas power plants

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will take comments on a range of options to help reduce mercury, arsenic, lead and selenium released into waterways by power plants, including through coal ash and air emissions control waste.

The four preferred options differ in the number of waste streams covered (such as fly ash handling systems, treatment of emissions control waste and bottom ash), the size of the units controlled and the strictness of the treatment controls to be imposed.

“America’s waterways are vital to the health and well-being of our communities,” said EPA Acting Administrator Bob Perciasepe. “Reducing the pollution of our waters through effective but flexible controls such as we are proposing today is a win-win for our public health and our economic vitality. We look forward to hearing from all stakeholders on the best way forward.”

The proposal updates standards that have been in place since 1982, EPA said in a release, and incorporates technology improvements in the steam electric power industry as required by the Clean Water Act. The new requirements would be phased in between 2017 and 2022, and are based on data collected from industry.

Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, praised EPA for the proposal.

“The Environmental Protection Agency has taken a strong step toward putting an end to the coal industry’s dumping of toxic waste, by releasing the first national standards limiting coal plant water pollution,” Brune said. “When finalized in their strongest form, the Environmental  Protection Agency’s commonsense and affordable standards will save lives, prevent children from getting sick, and ensure our water is safe to drink and our fish safe to eat. We applaud President Obama and the EPA for introducing these critical safeguards, and we will work to ensure these standards are not weakened by baseless industry attacks.”

However, the Edison Electric Institute (EEI) says the rule, at first glance, could add a "significant financial and operational burden" to power producers already trying to comply with other emissions control rules.

"This is a very complex rulemaking, and we’re still in the process of reviewing EPA’s proposed guidelines,” said EEI President Tom Kuhn.  "The new guidelines come at a time when the industry is already adapting to EPA’s new Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) and other new federal and state rules. Many power plant operators are in the process of transitioning to meet new standards, including extensive and expensive retrofits at coal plants, retirement of some units, and fuel switching from coal to gas-based generation. We look forward to working with EPA to develop a final rule that achieves the goal of cleaner water, while minimizing the economic impact on the industry and its customers."

EPA says there are approximately 1,200 steam electric power plants that generate electricity using nuclear, coal, oil or natural gas in the U.S. Approximately 500 of them are coal-fired units, which is the primary source being addressed by the regulation.  The agency said it would align this rule with a related coal combustion residuals, or coal ash, rule proposed in 2010. Both rules would apply to many of the same facilities. Plants smaller than 50 MW would not be impacted.

For more information on the rule, click here.

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