EPA eases limits on coal plants' toxic discharges

EPA is relaxing Obama-era regulations for wastewater coming from coal-fired power plants, discharges that can contain high levels of toxic chemicals like mercury, arsenic, nitrogen and selenium.

The agency issued a final rule today, rolling back 2015 standards that represented the first time in more than 30 years the federal government had acted to curb the toxics and other pollutants that power plants release into nearby waterways.

The final rule, known as the Effluent Limitations Guidelines (ELGs), is similar to one proposed last fall but would further extend the timeline for plants to comply. And coal facilities closing, repowering or switching to natural gas by 2028 are exempt.

A senior EPA administration official on call today touted the rule as another example of President Trump's dedication to "American energy independence" and said the final changes will save $140 million annually while reducing 1 million pounds of pollution per year over the 2015 rule, despite relaxation of the timelines for compliance.

The official said the earliest a plant will need to comply is one year from the rule's publication in the Federal Register, and 2025 for best available technology. The official said EPA's revisions unveiled today will apply to wastewater generated at coal-fired power plants when sulfur dioxide is removed from the facilities' emissions, as well as water used to flush the bottom ash out of plants and into coal ash pits.


Compared with the 2015 rule, EPA's proposal would have allowed significant increases of selenium that enters waterways in discharges of wastewater that came from cleaning power plants' air filters (Greenwire, Nov. 4, 2019).

It would set a daily maximum limit on selenium at 76 micrograms per liter — or more than three times the Obama-era limit of 23 micrograms per liter. The monthly average treatment in the new rule is 31 micrograms per liter, compared with 12 micrograms per liter in the Obama-era rule.

The rule also includes loopholes for power plants to be exempted from even the higher selenium limits.

The Obama-era rule required power plants to treat their wastewater in two ways. Citing lower compliance costs, the Trump rule would allow power plants to use a shorter biological treatment process, which would result in the higher selenium levels.

But many plants have been exempted from using the biological treatment process at all, allowing their mercury, arsenic and nitrogen levels to increase significantly.

Power plants with "high flows" of wastewater and coal power plants that are used only during peak power demand are exempted from the biological treatment requirement entirely.

Those plants are allowed to release nearly 10 times as much mercury — 788 micrograms per liter daily — as plants that are not exempted from the treatment requirement, which are limited to 85 micrograms per liter daily.

The rule gives power plants until the end of 2025 to comply with the new rules but also says EPA would establish a voluntary incentive program whereby power plants would have until 2028 to comply if they decide to include more biological treatment.

The Trump rule also makes changes to new requirements the Obama administration set on water used to flush plants of waste left over when coal is burned, known as bottom ash.

The Obama administration sought to change that by requiring all power plants to dispose of the ash while continuously recycling the process water, and not discharging any of it, because it can be highly toxic.

While the proposal would allow 10% of the process water to be discharged daily, a senior agency official said the final rule allows states to make case-by-case decisions.

Under the rule, plants that are retiring by 2028 do not have to treat their wastewater or dry dispose of their bottom ash.

Environmental groups blasted the rule.

"The Trump administration is once again jeopardizing people's health to give coal power industry lobbyists what they want," said Thom Cmar, deputy managing attorney for Earthjustice's coal program. "This dangerous decision will have a big impact because dirty coal-fired power plants are by far the No. 1 source of toxic chemicals in our water."

Past court decisions have said the rules for such discharges need to be stronger. In April 2019, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with environmentalists in finding that the Obama-era ELG rule did not use the best available technology and needed to be stronger (E&E News PM, April 12, 2019).

Email: hnorthey@eenews.net

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