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Tell the EPA to Protect our Water from Power Plant Pollution



If the Environmental Protection Agency does not finalize its plans to limit the amount of toxins power plants can release into water systems, their incidence will increase by 28 percent over the next 15 years, estimates the federal agency.  Currently, pollutant discharges - lead, mercury, arsenic, selenium, nitrogen, phosphorus and dissolved solids - from power plants into surface waters account for 50 to 60 percent of all toxic pollutants in all industrial categories regulated under the Clean Water Act. The existing legislation is 31 years old and has not kept up with changes in technology, which have the potential to reduce the amount of water discharge from cooling and filtration systems to zero. Eighty percent of power plants have no limits on the amount of heavy metals they can release into waterways.

July 9 at 1 p.m. in the EPA East Building, Room 1153, 1201 Constitution Avenue, NW, Washington, DC., the EPA will hold a public hearing where anyone can offer testimony, ranging from prepared talking points to personal experience and expertise on this issue with wide-ranging implications. Speakers have five minutes to make their point. The Sierra Club has prepared a set of guidelines for delivering the most efficient message. Those unable to attend can submit their comments online. The EPA has extended its public comment period to Sep. 20, 2013 from the original Aug. 6 deadline.

"There are numerous documented instances of environmental impact associated with these power plant discharges, such as harm to human health, harm to aquatic life, contamination of sediment, and detrimental impacts to wildlife," states the EPA in its environmental assessment report.

Energy companies, particularly those operating coal-fired power plants, are concerned that the new regulations, which target wastewater disposal methods, would place an additional financial burden on an already struggling industry because they would require the implementation of expensive new technologies. The current industry standard utilizes wet coal ash handling, with systems put in place to meet clean air requirements under the Clean Air Act. However, air protections have had collateral effects on water systems because power plants require a lot of water to cool equipment and filter their byproducts. Most coal-fired power plants store wastewater contaminated with bottom ash and fly ash in ponds, landfills or impound it in surface soils.

Based on a four-year study, the EPA has come up with four preferred alternatives for the proposed regulations on nuclear, coal, oil and natural-gas fired plants and intends to couple them with new regulations on coal combustion residuals, which were drafted in response to a major spill from a surface impoundment affecting more than 300 acres of land in Kingston, Tenn. and flowing into two riverways five years ago. Establishing limits for FGD wastewater, fly ash transport water, bottom ash transport water, combustion residual leachate from landfills and surface impoundments, nonchemical metal cleaning wastes, and wastewater from flue gas mercury control (FGMC) systems and gasification systems, they share baseline requirements limiting the release of toxins from fly ash transport water and wastewater from FGMC systems to zero, with varying exceptions on toxic discharge for smaller generating units.

Environmental groups have called on the EPA to enact the option that offers the most protection to people and the environment. Under the proposed alternatives, regulations "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," which is a wide range.

The EPA contends that fewer than half of the roughly 500 affected coal-fired power plants would incur costs under the new standards because 80 percent of them already have dry-handling systems, which avoid wastewater discharge, for fly ash in place. Under the propsed alternatives, companies would have an "associated annual cost ... between $185 million and $954 million," again a wide range.


The Sierra Club is counting down the number of retiring coal-fired power plants and registering the number of clean energy megawatts installed.  Days before the EPA issued its alternatives, more than 30 representatives from national, state and local organizations signed a letter to the White House calling for the EPA to "be allowed to propose a strong and timely rule for public review" in reponse to industry efforts to delay and soften the regulations.