By Sarah Coefield
Dec. 15, 2009
Power plants across the nation dump water laced with metals and other contaminants into streams and lakes, threatening drinking water supplies and wildlife.
Some states let plants emit metals at hundreds of times the level that federal officials say is safe. Others don’t even require monitoring for most of them.
But now the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is preparing a new regulation that would require more than 600 coal-fired power plants to clean up–perhaps even eliminate–the waste they put into lakes, rivers and other waterways.
And electricity users will foot the bill.
The new standards, to be unveiled in 2012 and implemented in 2014, will replace a patchwork of state regulations that EPA officials say are too lax to protect fish and wildlife from toxic metals and other contaminants that power plants dump into the water.
Of the 155 power plants discharging wastewater in the Great Lakes region, 87 exceeded their limits at least once in the past three years, according to EPA records. Some pollute more than others. Nine power plants exceeded their limits at least 20 times.
The plant with the most violations in the region during that period is Reliant Energy’s Conemaugh Generating Station in New Florence, Penn. It racked up 232 violations since 2006, almost entirely from metals in its wastewater. The plant has not been fined under the Clean Water Act for any of those violations, according to EPA data.
Power plants that burn coal require lots of water for cooling. They are typically near lakes and rivers where the water is collected and discharged. Most of that water never touches coal. But water is also used in equipment that scrubs the plants’ air pollution, and in ash ponds that store the waste from combustion. Those are the uses that expose water directly to an array of coal contaminants.
The EPA has regulated power plant wastewater since 1982 for suspended solids and pH, but most contaminant regulation has been left to individual states.
In September, an agency study concluded that regulations “have not kept pace with changes that have occurred in the electric power industry over the last three decades.”
The study shows that power plants release metals into lakes and streams, said Mary Smith, director of the engineering and analysis division of the EPA’s Office of Water. Among the agency’s concerns is the growing prevalence of scrubbers, which can clean contaminants out of the air at the expense of water quality. “Obviously some of the same metals that are in coal are in that wastewater stream,” Smith said.
“The air regulations just preceded us. Soon after the air regs came out we recognized this is an issue … and that’s why we started the study,” she said.
The agency will finalize its new rules in 2014.
For Abigail Dillen, an environmental attorney for Earthjustice, that isn’t soon enough.
Her organization believes EPA should be able to implement new laws by 2012.
The public is unaware that the federal government does not regulate many metals being discharged into the water, Dillen said. Nor are they aware that individual states are lax on regulating and rarely fine violators.
“It was shocking to me … when I first found out,” she said.
Here’s how metals from power plants can reach lakes and other water bodies:
Power plants spray scrubbers to reduce mercury and contaminants that cause acid rain–a process that cleans the air but can spell trouble for organisms living in the water. While scrubber wastewater is sometimes stored, reused or evaporated into a disposable sludge, it can also be treated in a settling pond and then released into a nearby waterway.
Water from ash ponds can overflow in a storm or be siphoned off to a water body to prevent the pond from collapsing. Ash pond wastewater can also leach into surrounding soil and threaten groundwater.
Simply storing the wastewater ponds is unlikely to solve the problem, Smith said. “Birds and other wildlife are attracted to these treatment ponds where they store the waste,” she said.
The lack of federal oversight has led to spotty regulations nationwide and even within the same state. State agencies regulate the wastewater on a case-by-case basis. And they don’t all monitor the same contaminants.
Most power plants don’t limit or monitor pollutants the EPA has identified as warranting attention, Enesta Jones, an EPA spokeswoman, wrote in an e-mail. “There is no state that regulates all the pollutants of concern from all of their power plants,” she said.
States typically let power plants have more contaminants in wastewater than would be considered safe for aquatic life because they allow for dilution. The idea is that lots of water will dilute the contaminants’ harm. But some experts say that dilution does not necessarily protect fish and wildlife.
“It sets up essentially a trap for fish and wildlife in an area where they can be exposed to extremely high concentrations. So it’s kind of a loophole,” said A. Dennis Lemly, a research professor of biology at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C.
“Dischargers are able to dump in a much higher concentration in the hopes that it will be diluted, that dilution will take care of the concentration and allow it to come down to meet their water quality criterion,” he said.
One option for the EPA is to prohibit coal-fired power plants from discharging any wastewater, Smith said. That would solve the dilution problem, but also force expensive changes in the industry.
Only a fraction of the nation’s 600 coal-fired power plants don’t discharge wastewater. Power plants in Illinois evaporate the water from scrubber waste and landfill the solids. Other power plants, particularly in the Southwest, also achieve zero discharge by evaporation.
The burden a zero liquid discharge standard would pose to the industry is impossible to predict, said C. Richard Bozek, the director of environmental policy at the Edison Electric Institute, a trade association of shareholder-owned electric companies.
Every power plant is different, he said.
But odds are it won’t come cheap.
“There’s a cost component to this idea of changing out things,” said Ed Legge, a media representative for the institute. “There always is.”
The EPA will take that cost into consideration, Smith said. “We’ll aim for the one that gives us the best reduction that’s affordable,” she said.
The industry worked closely with the EPA as it carried out its study and will continue to take part in the discussion, Bozek said. But, he said, suggestions that wastewater has gone unregulated are “false”.
“We are regulated. Even if something is not dealt with explicitly in the guidelines, that does not mean it is not regulated,” Bozek said. Individual power plants work with the states to determine what contaminants to monitor, he said. And the list frequently includes metals that have so far gone unregulated by the EPA.
Meanwhile, financial and technical issues will likely keep power plants from cleaning up wastewater before the EPA finalizes its new regulations in 2014.
“It’s premature and not necessarily a good business decision to guess what the EPA is going to do,” Bozek said.
NOTE: Updated for accuracy 12/17/2009 at 05:30
Note: Coefield reported portions of this story originally for Environmental Health News
Elisabeth Pernicone contributed to this report.