After utilities complain, Pruitt will rewrite rule limiting toxic metals discharged into water

The rule under review would prevent annual discharge of 1 billion pounds of pollutants.

Waste water from coal ash is pumped into a treatment facility outside Dominion Powers Bremo Bluff power plant in Virginia. CREDIT: AP Photo/Steve Helber
Waste water from coal ash is pumped into a treatment facility outside Dominion Powers Bremo Bluff power plant in Virginia. CREDIT: AP Photo/Steve Helber

The Environmental Protection Agency told a federal court this week that, after reviewing industry complaints, the agency plans to rewrite rules imposing federal limits on toxic metals in wastewater discharged from power plants.

The new standards the EPA is seeking to revise were finalized in 2015 to modernize 1982 rules on toxic discharges produced by coal-burning power plants under the Clean Water Act. In April, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt announced he was considering whether to initiate a rule-making to revise the rule.

In a Monday court filing with the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, the agency said it will review the rule at the behest of the Utility Water Act Group, an organization composed of power plant-owning electric utilities and the U.S. Small Business Administration. The wastewater released from coal-fired power plants into rivers and lakes typically contains highly toxic heavy metals such as lead, arsenic, mercury, and selenium.

In the court filing, the EPA said it plans to conduct a rule-making to revise the rules crafted by the Obama EPA. Because the agency plans to rewrite the rule, Pruitt asked the appeals court to halt litigation over the wastewater rule.

The EPA administrator said in an April statement “some of our nation’s largest job producers have objected to this rule, saying the requirements set by the Obama administration are not economically or technologically feasible within the proscribed [sic] timeframe.”

Industry advocates have blamed more stringent environmental rules for the premature retirement of coal-fired power plants. But the Obama EPA estimated that only about 12 percent of the nation’s steam electric power plants would have to make new investments to meet the higher standards.

Based on Obama EPA estimates, the 2015 rule would prevent more than 1 billion pounds of pollutants from being discharged into the nation’s rivers and lakes each year. Electric generating 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. 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, the EPA explained in 2015.

“Frankly, I’m losing count of the number of actions by Administrator Pruitt that will put the lives of millions of American children at greater risk,” Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group (EWG), said in a statement Tuesday. “But I can quickly add up what the cost is to polluters for dumping toxic chemicals into our water in the era of Scott Pruitt and Donald Trump: zero.”

EWG, a nonprofit environmental group, maintains a national drinking water database that shows where lead, arsenic, mercury and other contaminants are found in tap water by local water utility tests. Data from almost 50,000 utilities shows that arsenic contaminates more than 7,230 water supplies serving 70 million people and that mercury contaminates more than 280 water supplies serving 2.5 million people.

The Trump administration has launched a series of reviews of environmental rules, including smog and mercury restrictions and the Clean Water Rule. Similar to the wastewater rule, where those rules were being litigated in the courts, the administration asked judges to delay rulings and hearings while the regulations are reviewed.

Attached to this week’s court filing was a letter Pruitt sent to the Utility Water Group and the Small Business Administration letting them know that “after carefully considering your petitions, I have decided that it is appropriate and in the public interest to conduct a rule-making to potentially revise the new, more stringent Best Available Technology Economically Achievable effluent limitations and Pretreatment Standards for Existing Sources in the 2015 rule that apply to bottom ash transport water and flue gas desulfurization wastewater.”

As part of the rule-making process, the EPA will provide notice and an opportunity for public comment on any proposed revisions to the 2015 final rule, Pruitt said in the letter.