New Power Plant Rules Will Reduce Toxic Pollution and Save Water

We live in a world where information about our bodies, health, and world are ever-evolving. So it would seem ridiculous to think that regulations set in place more than three decades ago would still be applicable today, right? Can you imagine what life would be like if we were still applying the same food safety rules or medical standards from 30 years ago?

Shockingly, this is exactly the case when it comes to water pollution standards for steam electric power plants. These fossil fuel-burning power plants - in particular coal-fired power plants - discharge more toxic pollution into rivers, streams, lakes, and bays than the other top nine polluting industries combined.

Current federal regulations do not govern the disposal of the most harmful and dangerous power plant waste into waterways and landfills because these standards haven't been updated since 1982. Every year, power plants discharge at least 5.5 billion pounds of toxic metals into the waters that we use for drinking, fishing, and swimming - that's over 300 tons of waste being dumped every hour! Moreover, exposure to these metals has been linked to cancer, neurological damage, birth defects, and other serious health problems.

But today, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency took a big step to combat power plant water pollution by finally updating these outdated rules that clearly have not kept pace with changes that have occurred in the steam electric power industry. EPA deserves a huge kudos for its announcement today because the new rule will reduce the amount of toxic pollutants that power plants are allowed to discharge by 1.4 billion pounds annually - this is encouraging news because we all know that clean water is essential for the survival of plants, animals, and human beings.

Furthermore, the new standards will yield significant water savings - essential in an increasingly warm world with limited water resources. Specifically, EPA estimates that the rule will reduce power plant water use by 57 billion gallons every year - that is way more water (9 billion gallons more) than the city of San Diego uses in a year!

The water savings can be directly attributed to the fact that the new standards will require all power plants to convert to dry handling of both fly ash and bottom ash. Coal ash is the solid residue that is generated from the burning of coal and comes in two forms: 1) fly ash are the tiny particles that escape up the chimney or stack, and 2) bottom ash refers to the ash that do not rise.

A tremendous amount of water is used in the handling and transport of coal ash to ash ponds. The coal ash that is often mixed with water is then stored in unlined, unprotected landfills and impoundments, which can often leach into the groundwater, or worse, the sludge pond can fail altogether and cause catastrophic spills like what happened recently in North Carolina.

Because the final rule will now require power plants to use dry handling for managing coal ash, that means instead of using water to flush the ash to ash ponds, air will be used to transport the ash to storage silos. As a result, power plants will significantly reduce their water use. Additionally, the new rule also requires power plants to modernize their treatment of toxic scrubber sludge and to phase out unlined impoundments in favor of tank-based treatment standards. This will help prevent future disastrous coal ash spills.

The human health benefits from the final rule are also huge. EPA concludes that the new standards will yield an estimated benefit of $463 million per year to Americans across the country, in the form of reduced cancer risk, neurological risk, and drinking water risks, among others.

While we commend EPA for taking a big step in the right direction today to toughen sorely needed regulations on toxic discharges from fossil fuel-burning power plants, the final rule could and should be further strengthened. For one thing, we are concerned that under the new standards, so called "legacy" coal ash that is currently stored in unlined landfills and leachate that drains out of ash landfills will not be subject to any treatment standards. Moreover, the final rule is not expected to require compliance with new standards until a power plant's next permit renewal between 2018 and 2023, meaning that some plants could go as long as eight years without having to comply with the new standards. However, individual states could remedy both of these shortcomings when they incorporate the EPA rule into state clean water programs.

Despite the final rule's needed areas of improvements, what will be most important in the coming days, months, and years is that EPA and the states fully and timely implement the new standards so that once and for all, power plants can finally start taking responsibility for their decades of toxic water pollution. NRDC will be working with our partners to ensure that this happens, because at a minimum, every American deserves to enjoy more river miles that are safer to swim and fish in, and more water bodies that serve as safe drinking water sources and productive aquatic habitat.

About the Authors

Becky Hayat

Staff Attorney, Water program

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