Air pollution has been getting a lot of attention lately, since the Obama administration is expected to finalize its carbon emission standards next month. But water pollution from power plants is a big problem, too. For decades, the energy industry has had virtually free rein to release toxins into the same waters that people depend on for drinking, fishing, and swimming. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, more than half of the toxic pollutants entering the country’s surface waters via industrial sources come from power plants.
In September, the EPA plans to change that by updating federal regulations on toxic effluent from the power industry. Heavy metals, including neurotoxins like lead and mercury, are a large reason why more than 160 bodies of water across the country don’t meet state quality standards and 185 have fish-consumption advisories in place. Most of this pollution leaches from the coal ash ponds used to store slurry left over from burning coal.
The EPA passed coal ash restrictions last year, but they were weak and fraught with loopholes. Environmentalists worry the same thing could happen to the upcoming effluent legislation. The two are related: The coal ash rules govern the ponds (providing requirements for things like location and groundwater monitoring around the site), while the effluent rule limits the amount of pollution being discharged from the ponds.
This discharge problem could get a lot worse, as power plants scrub more toxins out of what’s billowing from smokestacks (a good thing), then dump that waste into coal ash ponds (not so good)—effectively transferring pollution from the air into surface waters that provide two-thirds of the nation’s drinking water.
Ann Alexander, a senior attorney for NRDC (disclosure), explains that today’s scrubbing technology for air emissions “was completely unheard of in 1982.” That was the year the EPA put the current water-pollution restrictions in place—and the rules have not kept pace with advances in tech.
The new limits could be a huge move forward for improving water quality in our country, but some environmental groups worry that the agency will settle for a baby step.
So far, the EPA has discussed eight regulatory options, ranging from weak to stringent. A report released by environmental groups last week argues that four of the EPA’s “preferred options” would continue to expose communities to unsafe amounts of pollution—largely through drinking water and local seafood.
According to the report, for instance, the weakest option would prevent less than one-tenth of the nearly 80,000 pounds of arsenic discharged into waterways every year, while the strongest rule could stop 98 percent of the carcinogen.
The EPA says it could cut annual wastewater effluent by anywhere from 470 million to 2.62 billion pounds, depending on which option it chooses. That’s a big difference—especially considering coal-fired power plants discharge about 5.5 billion pounds of pollution into waters every year. Why aim for stopping a mere fraction of the pollution, when you can shoot for nearly half?
And if passed, either of the two strongest rules could be fulfilled via technology available today—at a cost of less than 1 percent, on average, of a power plant's revenue.
“If technologies exist that can remove these poisons from our water, [why] wouldn't we take the strongest actions available to filter them out?” asks coauthor Barbara Gottlieb, environment and health director for the nonprofit Physicians for Social Responsibility, during a call with reporters.
According to the agency, a tough rule could bring $14 million to $20 million in health benefits annually, but coauthor Abel Russ, an attorney for the Environmental Integrity Project, says the agency’s calculation would be an underestimate—to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars—given the improvements that communities downstream from power plants would experience.
Curbing air pollution is a necessity—but we shouldn’t have to sacrifice our water for it. Let’s hope the EPA protects the quality of both come September.
onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.