EPA's coal plant waterway woes

THE Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is lining up coal-fired power plants again, this time using the Clean Waters Act.

Noel Dyson

The EPA is proposing a range of options to help reduce dangerous pollutants, including mercury, arsenic, lead and selenium from entering America’s waterways.

Those pollutants, it says, are released into US waterways through coal ash, air pollution control waste and other waste from coal-fired power plants.

While the rules are aimed at “steam” electric power plants, the EPA says it is coal-fired plants that are the “primary source” of the pollutants being covered by the regulations.

There are about 1200 steam electric power plants that generate electricity using nuclear fuel or fossil fuels such as coal, oil and natural gas in the US. Of those, about 500 are coal-fired.

“America’s waterways are vital to the health and well-being of our communities,” acting administrator Bob Perciasepe said.

“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 EPA is focusing on ensuring any final rule would protect public health while being sensible and achievable.

It says under the options it has proposed more than half of America’s coal-fired power plants would be in compliance without incurring any additional cost, because many already have technology and procedures in place to meet the proposed pollution control standards.

The proposal updates standards in place since 1982, incorporating technology improvements in the steam electric power industry over the past three decades as required by the Clean Water Act.

The proposed national standards are based on data collected from industry and provide flexibility in implementation through a phased-in approach and use of technologies already installed.

Under the proposed approach new requirements for existing power stations would be phased in between 2017 and 2022 and would use flexibilities as needed.

The four preferred options differ in the number of waste streams covered, the size of the units controlled and the stringency of the treatment controls to be imposed.

The EPA estimates the regulations would reduce pollutant discharges by 470 million to 2.62 billion pounds annually and reduce water use by 50 billion to 103 billion gallons a year.

It also announced its intention to align this Clean Water Act rule with a related rule for coal combustion residual – also known as coal ash. This rule 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 and related wastes.

The EPA is seeking comment from industry and other stakeholders to ensure both final rules are aligned to reduce pollution efficiently and minimize regulatory burdens.

The public comment period will be open for 60 days after publication in the Federal Register.

The EPA is under a consent decree to take final action by May 22, 2014.

According to the agency, power plants smaller than 50 megawatts will not be affected by the standards.

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