After a three-decade delay, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has proposed the first controls that would significantly curb power plant discharges of toxic coal ash and sludge into the nation's waterways, according to a report by five national environmental organizations.
The report released Tuesday by the Environmental Integrity Project, Waterkeeper Alliance, Sierra Club, Earthjustice and Clean Water Action said the regulations proposed by the EPA could reduce or eliminate the discharge of pollutants harmful to human and aquatic health such as lead, mercury, selenium, arsenic and cadmium that now total more than 5 billion pounds a year.
But the report also warns that lesser regulatory options -- inserted into the EPA proposal by the White House's Office of Management and Budget after meetings with representatives of the electric power industry -- would badly water down the controls. One of the OMB-proposed options contains no limits for the discharge of scrubber sludge that the EPA formulated the regulation to control.
Most of the pollutants discharged into the water come from smokestack "scrubber" pollutants that are removed from the smokestack emissions of coal-burning power plants -- a waste stream that didn't exist 31 years ago when the federal Clean Water Act regulations for power plants were last amended.
"As we do a better job of pulling pollutants out of the air, more and more toxic pollutants, including mercury, lead, cadmium and selenium, are being left behind and going largely untreated into our streams, lakes and rivers," Mary Anne Hitt, director of the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign, said during a phone news conference held to coincide with the release of the report.
That "witches brew of pollutants," she said, is linked to a variety of human health problems, including increased cancer risks and lower brain functioning in children. Mercury accumulates in fish, making them unsafe to eat and causing many states to issue voluntary fish consumption advisories.
"EPA is finally waking up and proposing rules that should have been in place 30 years ago, and that will reduce power plant water pollution by more than 50 percent," said Eric Schaeffer, executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project. "But several of the options inserted by the OMB are pitiful and would do little or nothing to reduce pollution and meet the legal requirements of the law."
Mr. Schaeffer, a former EPA regulator, said the control technology to clean up the power plant discharges into waterways is available and affordable. EPA study estimates put the cost of effective pollutant controls at less than 1 percent of the annual revenues for most coal plants, and, if passed along to electric utility customers, would cost approximately 2 cents a day.
According to official White House meeting logs cited in the report, industry representatives met with the OMB on four occasions in March and April and with environmental groups once. An expanded roster of regulation options, including several the report judged far weaker than the EPA proposed options, were published in the Federal Register June 7, kicking off a public comment period that will end Sept. 20.
Ari Isaacman Astles, an OMB spokeswoman, declined to comment on the specifics of the meetings involving the electric power industry, citing OMB policy.
The EPA, which has acknowledged that existing regulations have not kept up with electric utility industry practices, is working to establish the new regulations under a court order requiring it to take final action by May 22, 2014.
EPA estimates that the regulations, which would focus on the nation's approximately 500 coal-fired power plants, would reduce pollutant discharges by 470 million pounds to 2.62 billion pounds annually and reduce water use by 50 billion to 103 billion gallons per year.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr., president of the Riverkeeper Alliance, and representatives of the other four environmental groups, said they would go to court to ensure that strong controls on toxic wastewater discharges are adopted by the EPA.
Power plants that are smaller than 50 megawatts would not be subject to the controls.
"It's time for power plants to stop using rivers, lakes, streams and bays as open sewers to dump their toxic waste," said Robert Wendelgass, Clean Water Action's president and chief executive officer. "Worse still, three quarters of these plants are operating without a permit to limit the amount of toxic metals they can dump in the water. The EPA must end the power plant industries' free pass to pollute into already damaged waterways and other vital waters that are sources of drinking water for millions of Americans."
Kevin Sunday, a DEP spokesman, issued a statement saying the department "is reviewing EPA's proposal and intends to submit comments to assist the agency in crafting a sensible final rule making."
Don Hopey: email@example.com or 412-263-1983. First Published July 23, 2013 2:15 PM