EPA set to 'align' rules on coal plant water, ash disposal
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The Obama administration said Friday it plans to "align" a long-awaited rule on the disposal of toxic ash from coal-fired power plants with another overdue proposal that aims to reduce water pollution from electrical generation stations.
Under a legal settlement with citizen groups, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials were facing a Friday deadline to issue new water pollution discharge guidelines for power plants. EPA issued a proposed rule on coal-ash disposal nearly three years ago, but has yet to announce a timeline for finalizing it.
An EPA news release issued late Friday afternoon stated that that agency, "today will propose a range of options to help reduce dangerous pollutants, including mercury, arsenic, lead and selenium that are released into America's waterways by coal ash, air pollution control waste and other waste from steam electric power plants.
"Today's proposal includes a variety of options for whether and how these different waste streams should be treated," the release said. "EPA will take comment on all of these options, which it will use to help inform the most appropriate final standard."
A copy of the EPA proposal, though, was not immediately available and an agency official did not respond to a request for more information.
Currently, steam-electric power plants account for more than half of all toxic pollutants discharged into streams, river and lakes from permitted industrial facilities in the United States. The guidelines at issue have not been updated since 1982 to incorporate technology improvements over the last 30 years, as required by the Clean Water Act.
EPA said it estimates that its proposal would reduce those discharges by 470 million pounds, to 2.62 billion pounds a year, and curb power plant water use by 50 billion gallons to 103 billion gallons per year.
"America's waterways are vital to the health and well-being of our communities," said EPA acting administrator Bob Perciasepe. "Reducing the pollution of our waterways through effective but flexible controls such as we are proposing today is a win-win for our public health and our economic vitality."
There are about 1,200 steam-electric power plants that generate electricity using nuclear fuel or fossil fuels such as coal, oil and natural gas. About 500 of these plants are coal-fired units and are the primary source of the water pollution being addressed. "Power plants that are smaller than 50 megawatts would not be impacted by these new standards, and the majority of coal-fired power plants would incur no costs under the proposed standards," EPA said.
EPA agreed to propose the rules as part of a court settlement with the Sierra Club and the Defenders of Wildlife, but the agency has received several extensions of its proposal deadline. Most recently, EPA lawyers on April 11 told a federal judge that the rulemaking package, submitted to the White House in January, was still undergoing "interagency review."
On the coal-ash issue, EPA officials had promised the first-ever federal regulations on handling and disposal following the December 2008 collapse of a coal-ash impoundment in Tennessee.
Coal-fired power plants generate more than 130 million tons of various ash wastes every year. The numbers have been increasing as more plants install scrubbers and other equipment to control air pollution, a move that shifts the toxic leftovers from burning coal into ash and other wastes.
In its news release, EPA "announced its intention to align" the coal-ash rule and its new water discharge rule.
"The two rules would apply to many of the same facilities and would work together to reduce pollution associated with coal ash and related wastes," the EPA said. "EPA is seeking comment from the industry and other stakeholders to ensure that both final rules are aligned to reduce pollution efficiently and minimize regulatory burdens."
When it issued a proposal for coal-ash rules in June 2010, EPA did not settle on a specific plan. Instead, the agency sought public comments on one approach that would regulate coal ash as a hazardous waste, with nationwide regulations, oversight and enforcement, and an alternative that would leave actual regulation mostly up to the states.
EPA is apparently doing the same thing in its new water discharge proposal, offering, "variety of options for whether and how these different waste streams should be treated."
"The four preferred options differ in the number of waste streams covered (such as fly ash handling systems, treatment of air pollution control waste and bottom ash), the size of the units controlled and the stringency of the treatment controls to be imposed," the agency said in its news release.
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1702.