E.P.A. Relaxes Rules on Wastewater from Coal Fired Power Plants

September 4, 2020

The Trump administration this week rolled back rules on wastewater treatment standards for coal-fired power plants, specifically regarding bottom ash and flue gas desulfurization or scrubber sludge.

The weakening of this legislation could pose a threat to Indiana’s water systems. Indiana has more coal ash than any other state with 86 ponds, located near or on all of the major waterways in the state.

“This rule revision from the EPA allows more pollution from coal ash wastewater into Indiana's rivers and into Lake Michigan ,and it allows it for a longer time,” said Dr. Indra Frank, environmental health director for the Hoosier Environmental Council. “In Indiana, the power plants are capable of discharging millions of gallons of coal ash wastewater per day. At the Hoosier Environmental Council, we hope they will take responsibility for that wastewater, rather than taking advantage of this rule to send more of it into our waterways.”

Illustration by Alexa Chryssovergis

Under the 2015 Coal Combustion Residuals rule, water used to flush out bottom ash combustion chambers had to be treated and then reused. This allowed for a closed-loop system, so contaminated water had less of chance to pollute a nearby water source. However, under the new rule, 10% of the used water could be purged regularly.

Scrubber sludge is formed from scrubbing the smokestacks of the power plants. This keeps many toxic substances out of the air, but then transfers that pollution to the wastewater. The 2015 rule required utilities to update their facilities using more advanced evaporation and filtration systems.

According to a statement by Earthjustice, “The new rollback both weakens these requirements and introduces new loopholes for power plants that, among other things, claim they will be retiring or only operating for a limited number of hours per year — unjustifiably allowing utilities to continue dumping toxic pollution with minimal treatment if they can fit into one of these loopholes.”

However, the Environmental Protection Agency said in a news release that this new rule would reduce pollution by a million pounds per year over the 2015 rule and save $140 million annually for the U.S. power sector.

“EPA’s revised steam electric effluent guidelines shows President Trump’s commitment to advancing American energy independence and protecting the environment,” said EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler. “Newer, more affordable pollution control technologies and flexibility on the regulation’s phase-in will reduce pollution and save jobs at the same time.”

Earthjustice said the administration is “up-front about its rationale.”

“ The rollback isn’t meant to enhance public health or protect the environment; it will only enhance and protect the profits of the utility industry. This rollback ignores both recent court rulings and the Clean Water Act itself,” it said.

The EPA said it spoke with a variety of stakeholders for the rule and looked a wide range of data and input.

Industrial wastewater categories and regulations are established under the Clean Water Act. These rules, known as Effluent Limitations Guidelines and Pretreatment Standards (ELGs), are meant to protect human health and the environment by limiting wastewater discharges into water sources.

The EPA established new ELG guidelines for electric power plants in 2015, which was immediately met with a legal challenge. The EPA under the Trump administration agreed to reconsider the ELGs for the two wastewater streams.

“Because there are coal plants across the nation, the rollback of the 2015 rule will negatively impact tens of millions of Americans, robbing them of the hope of relief from updated pollution control standards that would substantially reduce the amount of pollutants that power plants are permitted to dump in our waters,” said the Earthjustice statement.

In April of 2019, Earthjustice successfully contested the 2015 rule to strengthen limits on wastewater streams. A federal court ordered the EPA to make the ELG rule stronger.

According to Earthjustice, “It has instead issued a rule to substantially weaken treatment requirements with a host of loopholes and exceptions.”

E.P.A. Relaxes Rules on Wastewater from Coal Fired Power Plants