By Patrick Crow, Washington Correspondent
In a major action, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has proposed effluent limit guidelines (ELGs) for steam power electric generation plants.
The proposal updates standards that have been in place since 1982, incorporating technology improvements in the steam electric power industry over the last three decades as required by the Clean Water Act.
The EPA said the standards are based on data collected from industry and provide four options in implementation, using a phased-in approach between 2017 and 2022 and technologies already installed at a number of plants.
The agency said fewer than half of existing coal-fired power plants would incur costs under any of the proposed options because they already have the technology and procedures in place to reduce emissions of mercury, arsenic, lead, and selenium in coal ash and other waste.
It said steam electric power plants currently account for more than half of all toxic pollutants discharged into streams, rivers and lakes from permitted industrial facilities in the United States. High exposure to these types of pollutants has been linked to neurological damage and cancer as well as damage to the circulatory system, kidneys and liver.
The proposed effluent guidelines include four preferred options that differ in the number of waste streams covered (such as fly ash handling systems, treatment of air pollution control waste and bottom ash), the size of the units controlled and the stringency of the treatment controls to be imposed.
The EPA also said it would align the Clean Water Act rule with a related rule for coal combustion residuals (CCRs, also known as "coal ash") proposed in 2010 under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. The two rules would apply to many of the same facilities and would work together to reduce pollution associated with coal ash and related wastes.
The agency said 1,200 steam electric power plants generate electricity using nuclear fuel or fossil fuels such as coal, oil and natural gas in the U.S. About 500 of these power plants are coal-fired units that are the primary source of the pollutants being addressed by the proposed regulation. The new standards would not affect power plants smaller than 50 megawatts.
The EPA said depending on the options selected for the final rulemaking, its proposals would annually reduce pollutant discharges by 470 million to 2.62 billion pounds and reduce water use by 50 billion to 103 billion gallons per year. If compliance with the proposed rule would be economically achievable, it would cost industry between $185 million and $954 million annually.
The proposed rulemaking was driven by a March 2012 consent decree stemming from a lawsuit (Defenders of Wildlife vs. EPA) filed by several environmental groups. Under the consent decree, the EPA must publish a final regulation by May 22, 2014.
Clean Water Action, the Environmental Integrity Project, Earthjustice, the Sierra Club and other environmental groups applauded the proposal.
Their statement said, "Power plants are the biggest sources of water pollution in the country, yet the EPA has not reviewed regulations for this industry in more than 30 years."
They said that some of the options that the EPA offered the industry were weak but others addressed all of the contaminated wastewaters of concern. "We are heartened to see that the EPA has identified these options as both achievable and affordable, and we urge the agency to settle on a final choice that will keep America's waters safe and clean."
J. Holland Scott, Client Service Manager for CH2M HILL, underscored the fact that the proposed rule is still a work in progress.
"The EPA has left itself four courses of action. It has opened itself up to intense pressure from environmental groups and power producers, all of whom are very concerned about the final rule. Presently, nobody is happy about the lack of specificity in the current document."
Scott was concerned that the EPA's approach wouldn't leave the industry enough time to prepare for compliance. "It's pretty clear that companies aren't going to have adequate time for a normal construction project."
In a separate action, the EPA has expanded its program to revitalize urban waterways. It added 11 locations to its list of 18 areas eligible for federal aid.
EPA's Acting Administrator Bob Perciasepe said, "Since we launched the Urban Waters Federal Partnership two years ago, we've seen firsthand what the transformation of degraded urban waterways into clean, healthy and treasured centerpieces can do for local communities -- not only from an aesthetic standpoint, but also from a public health and economic standpoint."