EPA announces intent to bolster limits on water pollution from power plants

July 26, 2021

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently announced that it is initiating a rulemaking process to strengthen certain wastewater pollution discharge limits for coal power plants that use steam to generate electricity.

The agency undertook a science-based review of the 2020 Steam Electric Reconsideration Rule under Executive Order (E.O.) 13990, finding that there are opportunities to strengthen certain wastewater pollution discharge limits. For example, treatment systems using membranes continue to rapidly advance as an effective option for treating a wide variety of industrial pollution, including from steam electric power plants. EPA expects this technology to continue advancing and the agency will evaluate its availability as part of the new rulemaking.

“EPA is committed to science-based policy decisions to protect our natural resources and public health,” said EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan. “In conducting a review of the 2020 rule as directed by President Biden, EPA determined that moving forward with implementing the existing regulations would ensure that water resources are protected now, while we quickly move to strengthen water quality protections and further reduce power plant pollution that can contain toxic metals such as mercury, arsenic, and selenium.”

While the agency pursues this new rulemaking process to strengthen water pollution requirements for coal power plants, the current regulations will be implemented and enforced. The 2020 rule made modifications to only certain aspects of the 2015 Steam Electric Effluent Limitation Guidelines (ELGs) rule, such that requirements promulgated in 2015 and 2020 are currently in effect. The current requirements provide significant environmental protections relative to a 1982 rule that would otherwise be in effect. The 2015 and 2020 rules are leading to better control of water pollution from power plants while reducing the cost of controls such as biological treatment systems and membrane treatment systems. The agency’s approach will secure progress made by the 2015 and 2020 rules while the Agency undertakes a new rulemaking to consider more stringent requirements.


On September 30, 2015, EPA finalized a rule revising the regulations for the Steam Electric Power Generating category. The rule sets the first federal limits on the levels of toxic metals in wastewater that can be discharged from power plants. On August 31, 2020, the Agency finalized a rule revising the 2015 requirements for two specific waste streams produced by steam electric power plants—flue gas desulfurization (FGD) wastewater and bottom ash (BA) transport water. On January 20, 2021, President Biden signed Executive Order 13990, which directed the EPA to review all regulations and policies undertaken by the previous administration and rescind or revise any that do not protect public health and the environment. Accordingly, the EPA conducted a review of the 2020 Steam Electric Reconsideration Rule.

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