EPA proposes ‘strongest ever’ limits on coal plant discharges

By E.A. Crunden | 03/08/2023 01:45 PM EST

The new wastewater standards would unravel a controversial Trump administration effort to loosen rules limiting power plants’ toxic discharges into lakes and rivers.

The Trump administration last year finalized new "effluent limitation guidelines" governing toxic wastewater pollution from power plants.

A new proposal from EPA aims for strict water pollution limits for coal plant discharges. Sickter6/Wikipedia(wastewater);PxHere(coal plant)

Coal-fired power plants are facing another crackdown as the Biden administration moves forward with plans to limit toxic discharges into lakes and rivers in a major strike at one of the largest sources of industrial water pollution.

EPA is pursuing stricter limits on wastewater released by coal plants, unraveling a controversial move by the Trump administration to loosen those standards. The agency said Wednesday that the changes will see pollutants in discharged wastewater reduced by around 584 million pounds, in what EPA Administrator Michael Regan called the “strongest ever” limits offered under any president.

Speaking with reporters Tuesday afternoon, Regan said that the decision was rooted in deep concerns around public health, as well as a wider mandate to aid low-income communities and people of color. He cited the Biden administration’s directive to “follow the science” and said hard data had prompted the proposal.


“We know that our nation’s freshest waters continue to be jeopardized,” Regan said, calling actions to protect water among the president’s top priorities. Coal-fired power plants are the source of at least 30 percent of all national industrial water pollution, a number that is higher in regions like the Southeast.

EPA’s latest crackdown will run through effluent limitation guidelines (ELGs), a mechanism allowing the agency to regulate wastewater associated with specific industries. That includes steam electric plants, including coal-fired power facilities. Regulators are targeting that subset of plants through the new ELGs, which hit several major wastewater streams including flue gas desulfurization wastewater, bottom ash transport water and combustion residual leachate.

Additionally, EPA is looking to establish a new group of definitions for legacy wastewaters, or streams that are present in surface impoundments before more aggressive limitations underlined in a permit go into effect. The agency said it will seek public comment around whether to develop tighter standards for those legacy wastewaters.

The new ELGs are intended to address a long-running environmental crisis that has seen toxic industrial pollution threaten bodies of water across the country.

Coal-fired power plants often use water to flush ash out of their boilers, with the resulting liquid discharged into ponds. That water can be laced with everything from arsenic and mercury to lead and hexavalent chromium, all of which carry significant health risks. Those ponds overflow, bringing wastewater into other nearby bodies of water and posing major health and environmental problems, especially when it reaches drinking systems.

The Biden administration is moving to head off such crises. But EPA also caveated that it will offer some flexibility as it rolls out its proposal. The agency said plants would have additional time if they were in the process of installing technologies to be in compliance with different standards introduced under prior presidential administrations. Moreover, plants that are in the process of closing or moving to natural gas can continue to meet those prior standards.

To that end, EPA is also finalizing a regulation allowing plants to opt into the early retirement subcategory, phasing down their operations by 2028. Officials declined to speak to specifics about how many plants might be interested in taking that route, but said that conversations with industry members had indicated that a number of operators were hoping to take advantage of the opportunity.

Pressed on the possibility that coal plants might choose to close in the face of the new proposal, regulators instead underscored obligations under the Clean Water Act and a general mandate to protect public health. Radhika Fox, EPA’s top water official, spoke to the value of ELGs in bolstering environmental protections, noting that the agency is looking to use that avenue for other oversight areas, including in its crackdown on per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS.

She also said the agency estimates “a very small impact on electricity costs” stemming from the new power plant rule and only “a 63-cent-per-year increase per household” overall.

According to EPA, only one unnamed plant would likely shut down as a direct result of new guidelines. Officials also shied away from painting the decision as one targeted to further accelerate the decline of coal across the country.

“The rule is not aimed at driving a specific outcome,” said Regan, offering that instead it was “setting a standard to protect public health and water quality.”

Years of fighting

EPA’s announcement ushers in a new era for a battle that has spanned presidential administrations.

Concerns over wastewater from coal-fired plants prompted action in 2015 by the Obama administration, marking the first time in more than three decades that the government had made such a move. But under the Trump administration, EPA loosened those measures, allowing facilities to use cheaper technologies and comply with less stringent standards.

At the time, EPA touted the move as a major cost-saving measure that would protect industry jobs and preserve some $140 million annually for utilities. But advocacy groups expressed outrage over the decision, arguing that it would send hundreds of thousands of pounds of pollutants every year into waterways.

The rule ultimately sparked litigation from groups like the Center for Biological Diversity and the Sierra Club. It also spurred a flurry from coal plant operators across the South and Midwest, who pushed state regulators to align their water permits with the Trump EPA’s standard. Those efforts ramped up as President Joe Biden came into office, with operators seeking to capitalize on the more relaxed rule before seeing a more stringent replacement (Greenwire, June 14, 2021).

Despite that perception, reactions have been mixed from warring factions as the Biden administration has moved forward on the issue.

In 2021, EPA announced that it would initiate a rulemaking to strengthen the ELGs while still allowing the Trump-era standards to remain in place. At that time, Regan said his agency would launch a review looking into bolstering the limitations but cautioned that undoing the prior EPA’s actions would result in a less protective standard in the interim period, bringing back regulations from 1982 (E&E News PM, July 26, 2021). Advocates, however, panned the move as a handout for the coal industry.

Many offered a more conciliatory tune Wednesday as EPA rolled out the new guidelines. Sierra Club Senior Director for Energy Campaigns Holly Bender said in a statement that the group was “pleased” with the move and that it would help hold polluters accountable.

“We look forward to digging deeper into today’s proposal and working with EPA to ensure this proposal makes a real difference in communities and waters across the country,” Bender said.

Nick Torrey, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, similarly said the agency was “doing the right thing” with its proposal.

“It’s essential that EPA stand firm on these zero-discharge standards and strengthen its limits on wastewater from coal ash landfills, because that is the only way to stop poisoning the drinking water sources that families and vulnerable downstream communities depend on,” Torrey said.

A spokesperson for America’s Power, a group that advocates for coal plants, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

EPA’s Fox said that the new rule was more stringent than prior offerings but said the move was rooted in emerging science that had cropped up by the time the Biden administration reviewed the Trump-era changes. “What we found were there were some real opportunities to strengthen the 2020 rule,” Fox said.

Officials acknowledged concerns from industry members but argued that EPA is working to be transparent with businesses. Regan offered that the agency is seeking to “align our rulemaking schedule so that the power sector can be thoughtful about the investments that they have to make” as regulations roll out, but that the aim of the new standard is very targeted.

“This particular rule is focused on water quality,” said Regan.