EPA's Latest Water Attack: Protecting Polluting Power Plants

Are you interested in what the Environmental Protection Agency is doing about air and water contamination and the pollution that causes climate change? Here's an easy way to know what's up: (1) name an issue; and (2) if the prior administration did something to curb these threats, you can bet that the current EPA, headed by long-time EPA opponent Scott Pruitt, has a scheme to delay, undo, weaken, or repeal those safeguards. I wish this formula was an exaggeration, but the examples are piling up so fast, I don't think it is.

Today's example is Administrator Pruitt's plan to indefinitely postpone limits adopted in 2015 on the toxic pollution that electric power plants can discharge into waterways. As our friends at Earthjustice explain, these facilities dump enormous amounts of very dangerous stuff into waters, putting people who drink contaminated water or eat fish from these water bodies at risk of a host of health problems, including loss of IQ and cancer.

EPA held a public hearing on its delay proposal today. Many people traveled a long way to be at the one public hearing EPA held on its plan to suspend compliance obligations under the rule. Each speaker had three minutes to say his/her piece. This extremely limited engagement with stakeholders who don't agree with the agency's proposal looks a lot different than what the agency is doing with other interested parties; for instance, Administrator Pruitt has personally traveled all over the country on his "State Action Tour" to talk to people who already share his desire to undo safeguards the prior administration adopted. 

At today's hearing, with the exception of three utility industry representatives, none of the dozens of speakers supported the agency's scheme. I spoke at the hearing, and my prepared remarks are pasted below.

I represent the more than two million members and online activists of the Natural Resources Defense Council. Our supporters swim and boat in, fish from, and get drinking water that flows through, waterways at risk of pollution from toxic power plant discharges.

Although I appreciate the opportunity to speak today, I do not appreciate the necessity of doing so. EPA proposed to indefinitely excuse power plants from complying with effluent limits adopted two years ago, despite ample support for the conclusion that those limits are both technically achievable and affordable. Consequently, the agency’s push to delay compliance lacks any reasonable basis. The delay also contradicts the intent of the Clean Water Act, which prohibits compliance dates for specific effluent limits beyond three years after their adoption.

Most importantly, EPA’s action recklessly threatens public health. EPA proposes to undermine standards imposing long-overdue limits on toxic discharges from the country’s largest single source of toxic pollutants that hurt people and wildlife. To quote the agency itself:

The pollutants in steam electric power plant wastewater discharges present a serious public health concern and cause severe ecological damage, as demonstrated by numerous documented impacts, scientific modeling, and other studies. When toxic metals such as mercury, arsenic, lead, and selenium accumulate in fish or contaminate drinking water, they can cause adverse effects in people who consume the fish or water. These effects can include cancer, cardiovascular disease, neurological disorders, kidney and liver damage, and lowered IQs in children.

EPA likewise acknowledges that power plants expose people directly to these dangerous contaminants. These facilities discharge close to almost 100 intakes for drinking water suppliers and “more than 1,500 public wells across the nation.” They also discharge into waterways that pose risks for people who consume fish they catch, which EPA previously pointed out means that these discharges pose a disproportionate risk to low income people and communities of color.

Because of these serious threats, controlling power plants’ toxic pollution creates significant benefits. EPA estimated the benefits of the standards would have been as much as $566 million a year, compared to $480 million in costs, and the agency only monetized 13 out of 24 categories of benefits that it identified the rule would have.

For all these reasons, we support prompt compliance with the 2015 standards. EPA cannot justify its attack on these important safeguards, making its delay proposal a gross waste of time and resources. Please abandon it immediately.