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EPA to Curb Power Plant Water Toxins

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

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Under orders from the federal courts to act, the Environmental Protection Agency has proposed the first-ever limits on toxic metals discharged into waterways by U.S. power plants.

New proposed regulations on coal-fired power plants aim to improve water quality nationwide and keep billions of tons of industrial toxins and metals out of waterways, the federal government says.

"Proposed Effluent Guidelines for the Steam Electric Power Generating Category" were published June 7 in the Federal Register.

Steam electric power generating industry

EPA calls its proposed rule to strengthen controls on what plants dump into waterways a "win-win for our public health and our economic vitality."

Generally, the proposed rule would establish new or additional requirements for wastewater streams from the following processes and byproducts associated with steam electric power generation: flue gas desulfurization, fly ash, bottom ash, flue gas mercury control, and gasification of fuels such as coal and petroleum coke.

Old Rules, New Lawsuit

Federal rules that address power-plant water pollution have not been updated since 1982. In 2010, environmental groups sued the EPA for failing to regulate power plant water pollution as it currently does with other industries.

As part of that lawsuit, the groups agreed with EPA in a consent decree to a timeline for establishing new federal regulations for these water discharges.The Utility Water Action Group, a coalition of energy companies, fought the rule and its implementation schedule.

On April 19, however, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia rejected the group's challenge and ordered the EPA to meet the previously established deadlines. EPA then issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking.

The consent decree requires EPA to take final action by May 22, 2014.

Plant Pollutants

Of all industrial categories regulated by the Clean Water Act, more than half of all toxic pollutants discharged to surface waters are from steam electric power plants, according to the EPA

The proposed rule would strengthen the plant discharge controls set in 1982 and set the first federal limits on toxic metals in wastewater that can be discharged from power plants.

James M. Gavin plant

American Electric Power Company's General James M. Gavin power plant is the largest coal-fired power plant in Ohio and one of the largest in the world.

The proposal is based on data collected from industry and would be implemented through a phased-in approach between 2017 and 2022.

EPA is requesting public comment by Aug. 6 on the proposal. A public hearing on the proposed pretreatment standards will take place July 9 in Washington, D.C.

Preferred Options

The proposal identifies four regulatory options according to the number of waste streams covered (e.g., fly ash handling systems, treatment of air pollution control waste and bottom ash); the size of units controlled; and the stringency of controls.

The EPA projects levels of costs and pollutant reductions associated with these options on an annual basis. The compliance costs for these options range from $185 million and $954 million, pollutant reductions range from 0.47 billion to 2.62 billion pounds, and water use reduction ranges from 50 billion to 103 billion gallons per year.

About 1,200 steam electric power plants in the U.S. generate electricity using nuclear fuel or fossil fuel, and about 500 of those are coal-fired units, which are the primary source of the pollutants being addressed by the proposed legislation.

However, more than half of the current coal-fired power plants would be in compliance with the new standards without any further cost because they already have the technology and procedures required, the EPA says. For example, it says, more than 80 percent of coal plants already have dry handling systems for fly ash the avoid wastewater discharge.

Power plants that are smaller than 50 megawatts are not affected by the proposal.

Clean Water Act

Millions of tons of toxins linked to cancer and neurological damage are dumped into waterways every year, more than half of them from steam electric power plants, the EPA says.

EPA also announced the Clean Water Act rule with a related rule for coal combustion residuals that was proposed in 2010 under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. The two rules would apply to many of the same facilities and would work together to reduce pollution associated with coal ash. 

Pollutants by the Pound

"America's waterways are vital to the health and well-being of our communities," said Bob Perciasepe, acting EPA administrator, in a press release.

"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 vitalty. We look forward to hearing from all stakeholders on the best way forward."

According to the EPA, steam electric plants annually discharge millions of pounds of toxic pollutants that are linked to cancer, neurological damage and ecological damage, including:

  • 64,400 pounds of lead;
  • 30 million pounds of nitrogen;
  • 682,000 pounds of phosphorus;
  • 2,820 pounds of mercury;
  • 79,200 pounds of arsenic;
  • 14.5 million pounds of manganese;
  • 225,000 pounds of selenium;
  • 158,000 pounds of vanadium;
  • 1.97 million pounds of aluminum;
  • 4.99 million pounds of zinc; and
  • 27 other pollutants.

The pollutants discharged can remain for years and contribute to more than 160 bodies of water not meeting state quality standards, 185 waters with fish consumption advisories, and degradation of 399 water bodies that are drinking water supplies.

Public Comments and Meeting

The public meeting at 1 p.m. July 9 will be held in the EPA East Building, Room 1153, 1201 Constitution Ave. NW, Washington, D.C. No registration is required, but those who plan to speak must notify EPA by emailing

Comments may be submitted at, identified by Docket No. EPA-HQ-OQ-2009-0819, or via other methods identified in the Federal Register.


Tagged categories: Clean Water Act; Coal Combustion Residuals; Coal Combustion Residuals; Environmental Protection Agency (EPA); Power Plants; Regulations

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