Proposed Rule Would Allow Coal Utilities to Continue to Use Old, Ineffective Pollution Treatment
The U.S Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under President Trump is proposing to weaken water pollution standards for the power plant industry (known as the Steam Electric Effluent Limitations and Guidelines (ELG) rule). In 2015 EPA issued the first ever national pollution standards to limit the amount of arsenic, lead, mercury, selenium and other harmful chemicals that power plants can dump into our water. These standards had not been updated since 1982 and led to the contamination of 23,000 miles of rivers and streams across the country, including drinking water sources. The 2015 technology-based standards required power plants to achieve zero discharge of fly ash and bottom ash wastewater and set strict limits on discharges of arsenic, mercury, selenium, and nitrogen in scrubber sludge wastewater.
Proposal Puts Coal Industry Profits Above Our Health and Environment
At the behest of the power plant industry EPA is proposing to weaken pollution limits for two of the largest and most toxic power plant waste streams — sludge from the scrubbers that remove pollutants from smokestack emissions and water used to flush coal ash from boilers (commonly known as bottom ash wastewater). The 2015 rule required a closed-looped/zero discharge system for water used to flush out coal ash in boilers, but now EPA wants to allow plants to discharge up to 10 percent of their bottom ash wastewater. EPA also wants to relax technology requirements for limiting pollutants such as selenium in scrubber sludge wastewater discharges. Its proposal even offers new loopholes for power plants that claim they will retire soon or only operate for a limited number of hours a year — allowing these plants to dump even more toxic pollution into our rivers and lakes. Power plants, mostly coal-fired, are the number one toxic water polluters in the country and they shouldn’t be allowed to continue to contaminate our nation’s water resources. Gutting these standards is a hand-out to the power plant industry at the expense of our health and our environment.
Weakening These Water Pollution Standards Threatens Our Drinking Water
Power plant discharges are full of harmful pollutants such as mercury, arsenic, lead, and selenium. Exposure to these contaminants cause cancer, cause reproductive harm, and cause neurological and organ damage. Power plant wastewater also contains other pollutants such as vanadium, nitrogen, and bromide that are especially difficult and expensive for drinking water systems to remove. This is a concern because power plants frequently discharge wastewater into rivers and lakes that are used as drinking water sources, including near almost 100 public drinking water intakes and approximately 1500 wells. Because of this pollution, over 4,000 miles of rivers are unsafe for use as a source of drinking water or for fishing. There are documented cases of power plants contaminating drinking water supplies with arsenic, bromide, and nutrients. Bromide especially poses public health risks and present challenges for drinking water systems, because bromide in treated water can result in the formation of disinfection byproducts (DBPs), such trihalomethanes that are known to be carcinogenic.
EPA Should Strengthen, Not Weaken, Water Pollution Standards for Power Plants
Instead of weakening these pollution standards, EPA should uphold the zero discharge standards for bottom ash wastewater and act to strengthen the standards for scrubber sludge wastewater to include limits on critical pollutants like bromide and boron that the 2015 did not address.