5 Reasons Coal Plant Wastewater Regulations Are Long Overdue

Coal-fired power has been a mainstay of the American energy grid for over 100 years. Although our understanding of how emissions from these plants affects human and environmental health has grown over the years the EPA admits that regulations have not kept pace. The standards that apply to today’s coal plant wastewater were established in 1982 and do not cover most of the worst pollutants.

Finally, in April 2013, as a result of federal court litigation filed by several conservation groups, the EPA proposed the first ever national standards to limit toxics dumped into waterways from coal plants. Even still, a new report from The Sierra Club shows that Big Coal was still able to influence the new regulations, making them weaker than they should have been.

Coal Power Plant Wastewater

Image via Arnold Paul

The report, titled “Closing the Floodgates: How the Coal Industry Is Poisoning Our Water and How We Can Stop It,” [pdf] reviewed the extent to which the permits limit – or require monitoring of – the discharge of arsenic, boron, cadmium, lead, mercury, and selenium from coal-fired power plants; the expiration date of the permits; and the relative health of the receiving stream.

What the researchers discovered were five significant reasons why it’s time for the EPA to get serious about regulating coal plant wastewater:

  1. In the absence of any effective pollution limit, coal plants have become by far the largest source of toxic water pollution in the country, based on toxicity.
  2. Of the 274 coal plants that discharge coal ash and scrubber wastewater into waterways, nearly 70 percent (188) have no limits on the toxics most commonly found in these discharges (arsenic, boron, cadmium, lead, mercury, and selenium) that are dumped directly into rivers, lakes, streams and bays.
  3. Of these 274 coal plants, more than one-third (102) have no requirements to monitor or report discharges of these toxic metals to government agencies or the public.
  4. A total of 71 coal plants surveyed discharge toxic water pollution into rivers, lakes, streams and bays that have already been declared impaired due to poor water quality. Of these plants that are dumping toxic metals into impaired waterways, more than three out of four coal plants (59) have no permit that limits the amount of toxic metals it can dump.
  5. Nearly half of the coal plants surveyed (187) are operating with an expired Clean Water Act permit. 53 of these power plants are operating with permits that expired five or more years ago.

Perhaps even more disturbing is the fact that the groups also reviewed a red-line copy of the EPA’s proposed coal plant water pollution standards that were sent to the White House’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) before the standards were released. “The red-line copy shows that OMB caved to industry pressure and took the highly unusual and improper step of writing new, weaker options into the draft rule prepared by the EPA’s expert staff,” explains a press release.

“Allowing coal polluters to fill our rivers and lakes with this witches brew of toxic chemicals threatens public health and diminishes quality of life for Americans,” said Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., President of Waterkeeper Alliance, in the same release. “The Clean Water Act is one of our nation’s greatest achievements, but 40 years after this critical legislation was passed, the coal industry is still polluting with impunity, thanks to a loophole no other industry has enjoyed.”

Beth Buczynski is a freelancer writer and editor currently living in the Rocky Mountain West. Her articles appear on Care2, Ecosalon and Inhabitat, just to name a few. So far, Beth has lived in or near three major U.S. mountain ranges, and is passionate about protecting the important ecosystems they represent. Follow Beth on Twitter as @ecosphericblog