Green groups release report on coal plant waste policy

A new report released July 23 by a coalition of environmental and clean water groups highlights what they call the critical need to clean up coal-fired power plant water pollution.

The report, called “Closing the Floodgates: How the Coal Industry Is Poisoning Our Water and How We Can Stop It,” found that:

  • In the absence of any effective pollution limit, coal plants have become by far the largest source of toxic water pollution in the U.S., based on toxicity.
  • Of the 274 coal plants that discharge coal ash and scrubber wastewater into waterways, nearly 70% have no limits on the toxics most commonly found in these discharges (arsenic, boron, cadmium, lead, mercury, and selenium) that are dumped directly into rivers, lakes, streams and bays.
  • Of these 274 coal plants, more than one-third have no requirements to monitor or report discharges of these toxic metals to government agencies or the public.
  • A total of 71 coal plants surveyed discharge toxic water pollution into rivers, lakes, streams and bays that have already been declared impaired due to poor water quality.
  • Nearly half of the coal plants surveyed (187) are operating with an expired Clean Water Act permit. And 53 of these power plants are operating with permits that expired five or more years ago.

Based on available water permits, the groups said they surveyed 386 coal plants across the country and identified 274 plants that discharge either coal ash or scrubber wastewater. Existing standards that apply to coal plant wastewater were established in 1982 and do not cover most of the worst pollutants, the groups claimed. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has repeatedly acknowledged that existing guidelines have not kept pace with developments in the industry.

“However, for more than three decades the EPA has failed to set standards to curb the billions of pounds of pollution power plants dump into our rivers, streams and lakes each year from coal ash and scrubber sludge wastewaters,” the groups said. “Fortunately, in April 2013, as a result of federal court litigation filed by several conservation groups, the EPA proposed the first ever national standards to limit toxics dumped into waterways from coal plants.”

The groups said they reviewed a red-line copy of the EPA’s proposed coal plant water pollution standards that were sent to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) before the standards were released. “The red-line copy shows that OMB caved to industry pressure and took the highly unusual and improper step of writing new, weaker options into the draft rule prepared by the EPA’s expert staff,” the groups charged.

“Allowing coal polluters to fill our rivers and lakes with this witches brew of toxic chemicals threatens public health and diminishes quality of life for Americans,” said Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., President of Waterkeeper Alliance. “The Clean Water Act is one of our nation’s greatest achievements, but 40 years after this critical legislation was passed, the coal industry is still polluting with impunity, thanks to a loophole no other industry has enjoyed.”

To help highlight the report’s findings and raise awareness about the EPA’s new coal plant water pollution standards, organizers will be holding local events across the country. These include a “toxic lemonade stand” in Pennsylvania, a “Miss and Mr. Toxic Water Swimsuit Competition” in Missouri, and a kayaking trip outside a coal plant in Oklahoma.

About Barry Cassell 20414 Articles
Barry Cassell is Chief Analyst for GenerationHub covering coal and emission controls issues, projects and policy. He has covered the coal and power generation industry for more than 24 years, beginning in November 2011 at GenerationHub and prior to that as editor of SNL Energy’s Coal Report. He was formerly with Coal Outlook for 15 years as the publication’s editor and contributing writer, and prior to that he was editor of Coal & Synfuels Technology and associate editor of The Energy Report. He has a bachelor’s degree from Central Michigan University.