Energy & Environment

EPA finalizes rollback of coal plant wastewater regulations


The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has finalized a rollback of wastewater regulations from coal-fired power plants, which critics say will allow dangerous substances including arsenic and mercury to leach into waterways.

The finalized rule loosens requirements for treating discharges of toxic pollution from power plants that were set by the Obama administration in 2015. It also delays the implementation of the requirements and exempts several plants.

The Obama EPA estimated that its requirements would annually reduce “the amount of toxic metals, nutrients, and other pollutants that steam electric power plants are allowed to discharge by 1.4 billion pounds.”

A senior Trump EPA official told reporters on Monday that its new version of the rule is expected to save the power sector $140 million annually and reduce pollution by a million pounds per year compared to the 2015 rule.  

“Newer, more affordable pollution control technologies and flexibility on the regulation’s phase-in will reduce pollution and save jobs at the same time,” added EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler in a statement.

However, Betsy Southerland, who served as the director of science and technology at the EPA’s Office of Water under the Obama administration, said this calculation is flawed because it assumes a certain number of facilities will voluntarily adopt more stringent standards.

“They only listen to industry. They never listen to public health specialists or environmentalists, so it must be that these people told them they didn’t want it required, so that doesn’t bode well for them just voluntarily deciding to do it on their own, but it allows the EPA … to argue that their less stringent treatment option has a bigger reduction of toxics than the Obama rule,” Southerland said. 

She suggested that this voluntary option, known as membrane filtration, should have been what the EPA required. 

The rule, first proposed last year, weakens the regulations from dealing with residue from burning coal, called coal ash, and residue that’s rinsed off smokestack filters. Both of those types of waste are often mixed with water and stored in large pits that can leak into groundwater or be released into waterways. 

In addition to weakening treatment requirements, the rule also gives power plants two additional years to implement the regulations. 

Under the 2015 rule’s timeline, power plants would have until the end of 2023 to become compliant, but they now have until the end of 2025. 

It also exempts plants that are expected to shutter by 2028. The rule says that it expects 75 power plants to be impacted by the requirements, down from the 108 plants that would have been impacted by the 2015 rule. 

“This disastrous rule will allow coal power plants to continue dumping toxic wastewater–filled with dangerous pollutants like lead, mercury, and arsenic–into the same waterways that our families drink from and play in,” said a statement from League of Conservation Voters Deputy Legislative Director Madeleine Foote.

Tags Andrew Wheeler EPA rule

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