More than two years after issuing its proposed Effluent Limit Guidelines (ELGs) for steam electric power generation, the Environmental Protection Agency has published its long-awaited final rule. The update represents the rule’s first revision since 1982.
The new rule, EPA said, accounts for advances that have occurred over the past several decades in affordable, readily available technologies capable of reducing or eliminating discharges at electric power plants.
“All of the requirements that are going to be associated with this rule reflect technologies that are currently in use at power plants around the country,” said Ken Kopocis, EPA’s deputy assistant administrator for water, “so we know that they work, and we know that you can produce affordable power using these technologies.”
According to EPA, about 30 percent of all of the toxic pollutants discharged into U.S. waterways come from steam electric power plants under Clean Water Act permits. These discharges contain mercury, arsenic, lead and selenium and are responsible for damaging more than 23,000 miles of rivers and streams. “Toxic metals don’t break down in the environment,” said Kopocis, “so their effects can last years or even decades. They can contribute to sediment, pollution in waterways, and impact aquatic life and wildlife, notably leading to large-scale fish kills.”
The (relatively) good news is that most steam electric power plants are already in compliance with the new rule. “Currently, there about 1,080 steam electric power plants in the United States that generate electricity using nuclear fuel or fossil fuels, like coal, oil and natural gas,” Kopocis said. “Of these, just 134 plants will need to make new investments to meet this rule’s requirements.”
It’s also worth noting that the rule does not apply to oil-fired power plants or those smaller than 50 megawatts.
The compliance period will run from 2018 to 2023, depending on when a facility must renew its permit. The dates also reflect EPA’s effort to coordinate the rule with the Coal Combustion Rule issued late last year. “This will allow the industry to make rational decisions on where they want to make investments, either going forward with investments to relate it to fuel changes, or investments related to how it is that they handle their waste,” said Kopocis.
EPA estimates that the new guidelines will reduce the amount of toxic metals, nutrients, and other pollutants discharged from steam electric power plants by 1.4 billion pounds annually. The agency also said the rule will reduce water withdrawal by 57 billion gallons per year.
The cost of complying with the new requirements, EPA said, is in the vicinity of $480 million, an amount that the agency described as “economically feasible.”
“There will be some changes in how plants process and use their waste streams,” said Kopocis. “There will be changes that require specific treatment processes to be in place, but I do want to re-emphasize, these are all technologies and treatments that exist today. So we believe that this is an extremely feasible and affordable way to approach the significant source of pollution.”