Power plants use more water than all other industries combined, primarily for cooling systems but also for controlling pollution from smokestacks and disposing of toxic coal ash. As a result, coal-fired power plants are also some of the biggest sources of water pollution in the country, responsible for dumping millions of tons of toxic chemicals into waterways, raising water temperatures, and killing billions of fish.
NRDC is pushing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to issue two sets of stronger standards that will limit the amount of toxic pollutants discharged from power plants and reduce their water use, which will then better protect aquatic habitat and curb water pollution.
In 2011, coal-fired power plants generated about 76 million tons of coal ash—enough to fill 17 stadiums the size of the Superdome in New Orleans. Coal ash contains unsafe levels of mercury, arsenic, lead, chromium, and other toxic metals—and, making matters worse, it's often mixed with water and stored in unprotected and unlined sludge ponds, which sometimes leak or spill. New EPA standards could reduce or eliminate discharges of pollutants contained in coal ash and other types of waste from thermoelectric power plants. This would then also dramatically decrease the amount of water that power plants use for controlling their toxic emissions and managing coal ash.
Many older power plants still use an outdated system known as “once-through cooling," which pulls in enormous volumes of water, kills fish, and disrupts the environment by returning water back where it came from at much higher temperatures. Strong EPA standards for cooling systems would encourage the industry to move away from this environmentally destructive system and toward modern technologies, such as closed-cycle cooling, which use less water and harm far fewer fish.