Annie Snider and Manuel Quinones, E&E reporters
U.S. EPA is proposing a rule aimed at curbing wastewater discharges laced with heavy metals and other toxins from coal-fired and nuclear power plants, saying it’s looking to “align” new standards with another pending rule related to the disposal of coal-combustion ash.
The rule proposal announced late Friday afternoon offers four options for regulating toxic discharges from power plants. EPA will accept comments on those proposals as it works toward release of a final standard by May 22, 2014 — a date set by a legal settlement with green groups Environmental Integrity Project, Defenders of Wildlife and the Sierra Club. The rule would be phased in between 2017 and 2022.
Environmentalists are pressing the administration to issue stringent new standards. Today, power plants are the top source of toxic pollutants including mercury, arsenic, lead and selenium. The current rule has not been updated since 1982, and in anadvance copy of the proposed rule, EPA says regulations have not kept pace with changes in the industry over the last three decades.
“America’s waterways are vital to the health and well-being of our communities,” said EPA acting Administrator Bob Perciasepe in a statement. “Reducing the pollution of our waterways through effective but flexible controls such as we are proposing today is a win-win for our public health and our economic vitality.”
Environmentalists and public health advocates, who say that as new air pollution controls such as scrubbers have come online at plants the pollution has simply shifted to water, welcomed the new regulations.
“The Environmental Protection Agency has taken a crucial step toward putting an end to the coal industry’s dumping of toxic waste by releasing the first national standards limiting coal plant water pollution,” Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune said in a statement.
Brune added, “Strong standards from [EPA] will save lives, prevent children from getting sick, and ensure our water is safe to drink and our fish safe to eat.”
The agency estimates that the regulations would cut pollution discharges by between 470 million and 2.62 billion pounds annually and reduce water use by between 50 billion and 103 billion gallons a year.
Industry representatives have said the regulation would drive up electricity bills. The Utility Water Act Group, which tried to intervene in the environmental groups’ lawsuit, said in a recent court filing that impacts to its members “would be concrete and particularized, immediate, and causally related to this lawsuit.”
EPA said Friday that fewer than half of 500 U.S. coal-fired power plants — the primary source of pollutants targeted by the new regulation — would see increased costs under any of the proposed options.
The proposed rule would exempt plants that are smaller than 50 megawatts. EPA estimates that the total compliance cost would range from $185 million to $954 million. A fact sheet on the proposed rule says that “electricity rates are projected to stay well within historical fluctuations.”
Jim Roewer, executive director of the Utility Solid Waste Activities Group, said he had not yet done the cost-benefit analysis on the 490-page proposal but predicted that, at some facilities, the new rule would require “some profound changes.”
While expressing concerns about the overall rulemaking, Roewer welcomed EPA’s decision to link the effort with another set of proposals to police the disposal and storage of coal combustion residuals.
“I would say we’re pleased that the agency is coordinating the [effluent rule] and the [coal ash] rulemakings,” he said in an interview. “We’ve always stressed the importance of that coordination.”
EPA’s coal ash proposals are aimed at preventing industrial accidents like the 2008 impoundment failure in Tennessee that dumped more than 1 billion gallons of ash slurry into waterways, fields and forests. But environmentalists have also complained of old dumps leaking pollutants into the environment.
“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,” EPA said Friday, calling it a goal for both rules to be “aligned to reduce pollution efficiently and minimize regulatory burdens.”
Companies that recycle coal ash for things like cement or wallboards are thrilled by a short, technical section of EPA’s power plant discharge proposal, which suggests the regulation of ash under Subtitle D of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) — in other words, regulating it as a nonhazardous substance.
EPA said its risk assessment for the ash rule isn’t finished, but new information and enforcement connected with the wastewater discharge rule may affect guidelines for ash disposal.
The agency said that information “could provide strong support for a conclusion that regulation of [coal combustion residuals] disposal under RCRA Subtitle D would be adequate.”
Ash recyclers and utilities pushing against a hazardous designation for coal ash were thrilled by that technical statement.
“With this announcement, EPA has sent a positive message to recycling markets that the Agency’s earlier proposal to regulate coal ash as a hazardous waste was ill-conceived, unwarranted and ultimately unnecessary,” the group Citizens for Recycling First said in a statement.
Recycling firm Headwaters Inc. CEO Kirk Benson said, “This indication by EPA will help restore certainty to the beneficial use market and makes environmental and economic sense.”
Environmentalists have preferred coal ash oversight under Subtitle C of RCRA, which would ensure federal-state enforcement and monitoring. Subtitle D would rely on enforcement through states and citizen lawsuits.
Earthjustice attorney Lisa Evans called the risk statements “inconsistent.” She pointed at other parts of EPA’s document, which she says show the continued threat from ash dumps.
EPA said about ash dumps, “In addition to the proposed requirements, as part of this rulemaking EPA is considering establishing best management practices requirements that would apply to surface impoundments containing coal combustion residuals.”
The agency added, “EPA is also considering establishing a voluntary program that would provide incentives for existing power plants that dewater and close their surface impoundments containing combustion residuals, and for power plants that eliminate the discharge of all process wastewater.”