Pruitt EPA’s Water Pollution Delay Extends Uncertainty for Southeast Coal Plants

A pipe dumps runoff pollution from a coal ash pond at Alabama Power's Plant Gorgas into a popular fishing area.

Since 1982, little has changed about the toxic pollution coal-fired power plants are allowed to dump in water, although change was on its way. Unfortunately, if EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt prevails, our waterways and our health will remain threatened by our nation’s leading source of toxic water pollution: coal fired power plants.

We will have to keep on waiting for modern, updated protections, and coal plant operators face continued uncertainty over their compliance obligations – uncertainty that may actually accelerate coal’s decline. In early May, environmental groups challenged the legality Administrator Pruitt’s stay.

In the Southeast, many power plants’ operators were already preparing to meet new 2015 standards, which would go into effect in 2018, updating pollution control technology at their plants and working with state agencies to update state water discharge permits. The 2015 Effluent Limitation Guidelines (ELGs), which represents the first update to these regulations since 1982, nearly eliminates dumping of ash-contaminated wastewater, and for the first time, limits the discharge of heavy metals that come from removing toxics from the air pollution stream and trapping them in a watery sludge.

We’ve waited 35 years for updated pollution control standards for coal plant water pollution, while coal companies have enjoyed the freedom to cut costs and increase pollution discharges into our rivers, streams and drinking water. The new ELG standards were created with input from the public and the coal industry, even including a long compliance timeline that wouldn’t have required compliance until 2023 – 41 years after the 1982 ELG standards.

Coal plant operators were already moving ahead with compliance, with at least one southeastern plant obtaining a final operating permit that reflects the 2015 standard. Others are either in the process of draft permit review, or have yet to receive an updated permit due to state regulators’ delays in addressing a permit backlog. All of these plants are now on an unclear path, thanks to Administrator Pruitt’s rush to stay implementation of the new ELG standards.

So, how did we get here?  On April 25th, Administrator Pruitt sided with the polluting industry and conceded to requests from industry to put the 2015 ELG standards on hold. Compliance deadlines are suspended while EPA decides whether to revisit parts of the rules, which were created under Obama-era EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy. Utilities were already challenging aspects of the updated standards in court, so Pruitt asked, and the court agreed, to indefinitely stay the case until the new Trump EPA can reconsider the standards and determine which parts it wants the court to remand back to EPA to redesign and likely weaken.

Click on images to download high-resolution map

Unsurprisingly, given what’s at stake, the American Water Works Association and the National Association of Water Companies, along with environmental groups, opposed the delay. They had previously challenged the ELG standard for not being protective enough. It’s easy to see why: maps of coal plants relative to downstream municipal drinking water intakes suggest a serious health threat caused by coal-related water discharges (see two examples on the right). According to the Waterkeeper Alliancenearly 35% of all coal plants discharge toxic pollution within 5 miles of a downstream community’s drinking water intake and 81% of all coal plants discharge within 5 miles of a public drinking water well. Southern Environmental Law Center’s interactive map of North Carolina and Virginia is another good visual aid that tells the same bleak story.

It remains to be seen how the Pruitt EPA will attempt to change the rules, though there’s little doubt that any changes would weaken the rule to prioritize polluter interests over protecting our health. Nor is there much doubt that environmental groups, perhaps joined by drinking water utilities who will incur more costs to treat heavily polluted water, would challenge any such weakening as a violation of the Clean Water Act, the law under which Effluent Limitation Guidelines were established.

Meanwhile, utilities that are trying to plan how to generate electricity over the short- and long-term need to be able to project coal plant operating costs – and extended uncertainty from the ELG stay doesn’t make this any easier. The relatively small cost of complying with the updated ELGs is far outweighed by its benefits. These compliance costs, however, still represent a significant part of a utilities’ calculation when deciding the least expensive electricity generation options, especially when so many coal-fired plants are already marginally economic.

A little more than 5 years ago, coal accounted for roughly 60% of our energy generation in the South. Now, coal generation accounts for around 30% of Southeast electricity generation, with utilities electing to retire numerous coal-fired plants rather than sink more money into an outdated electrical generation technology. Many of our largest utilities, including TVA and Duke Energy, remain dedicated to decreasing coal reliance even further, regardless of the Trump administration’s efforts to trim coal plant regulations and threaten our public health. That’s because coal is already losing based purely on economics, and because, as Duke CEO Lynn Good says, the utility needs to plan beyond the timeline of a single presidency.

“We have to look through the changes of administration, the changes in politics and set our vision on where we want our company to be and what strategy we are pursuing,” Good says. “So when I think about administrations, the only person running Duke Energy for 2025, 2030 and 2035 is Duke Energy.”

America has always thrived on innovation. Our health and our environment are best served by this same innovation. This is why we must proceed with implementation of the 2015 Effluent Limitation Guidelines as quickly as possible.

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