Climate

EPA Rule Aims To Curb Toxic Coal Plant Pollution In Waterways

CREDIT: AP Photo/Matthew Brown

This June 17, 2011 photo shows PPL Montana's J.E. Corette coal-fired power plant along the Yellowstone River in Billings, Mont.

The Environmental Protection Agency announced new rules Wednesday aimed at curbing the amount of pollution that power plants dump into streams.

The rule, known as the Steam Electric Power Generating Effluent Guidelines, targets steam electric power plants — plants that use steam to drive the electric generator — that dump large amounts of toxic pollutants into streams every year. The rule, according to the EPA, marks the first time the federal government has set limits on the amount of toxic metals that power plants can discharge into streams. The EPA estimates that the rule will keep 1.4 billion pounds of toxic metals and other pollutants out of waterways each year.

According to the EPA, electric plants dump 64,400 pounds of lead, 2,820 pounds of mercury, 79,200 pounds of arsenic, and 1,970,000 pounds of aluminum into the country’s waterways every year. As the agency points out, that’s bad news for environmental health and for the health of people who depend on these streams for drinking water. Some of these pollutants, including arsenic, are known carcinogens, while others, such as lead, have been linked to developmental and reproductive problems. This pollution has also been linked to fish die-offs, according to the EPA.

“Burning coal creates a lot of heavy metals — pollution that’s dangerous for communities and the environment,” Dalal Aboulhosn, the Sierra Club’s senior Washington representative for Clean Water Policy, told ThinkProgress. “These are things that not only bio-accumulate — or build up in the fish we eat — but are heavy metals that cause a lot of health problems in vulnerable populations like children and the elderly.”

How power plants produce waste.

How power plants produce waste.

CREDIT: EPA

The rule — which marks the first time the EPA has updated its steam electric power plant guidelines since 1982 — affects about 23,600 miles of waterways that are currently being polluted by steam electric plants. These plants discharge pollution upstream or close to 100 public drinking water intakes, according to the agency. The EPA states that about 134 of the 1,080 electric power plants in the country will have to “make new investments” to comply with the new rule.

Aboulhosn, however, is confident that it won’t bee too difficult or expensive for power plant operators to meet the new rule’s standards. The EPA estimates that compliance costs for the rule will total around $480 million each year, while monetary benefits will total anywhere from $415 to $566 million.

“This is a completely fixable problem, and there’s proven, affordable technology that can be implemented to stop pollution from getting into waterways,” she said.

Options for stopping the pollution include “dry handling” the waste, which Aboulhosn said does “exactly what it sounds like it does.”

“Instead of putting heavy metals into water, which allows them to move more freely into the environment and leach into groundwater and fish, dry handling prevents that type of contamination,” she said.

Aboulhosn said that the EPA’s decision to act on this issue was long overdue and hugely important. So far, there hasn’t been much pushback on the rule, but she said she wouldn’t be surprised if industry advocates and lawmakers began including the rule in their “war on coal” rhetoric.

“A lot of people understand that burning coal produces smoke, and pollutants that we inhale can cause asthma and bad air quality days,” she said. “What we don’t realize is that as we clean up those smokestacks — which is improving health of communities around us and is being done affordably — that pollution is going into wastewater streams.”

The pollutants, she said are “not just disappearing — they’re moving into other avenues and moving into waterways, and wastewater is getting more and more toxic as we are cleaning up air.”

Earthjustice, a group that sued the EPA in 2010 in an attempt to force the agency to take action on the issue, also praised the agency’s decision.

“We don’t drive cars or fly airplanes based on 1982 safety standards, so why should we allow power plants to dump poisons into our waters under such outdated standards?” Earthjustice attorney Thomas Cmar said in a statement. “Today’s rule finally ends the decades-old industry practice of using massive amounts of water to move toxic waste out of power plants and into unlined impoundments, which ultimately goes into our rivers, lakes and streams.”