The lack of federal standards limiting toxic pollution caused by coal plants profoundly contributes to the water contamination.
Photo by Fotolia/Kletr
A new report released by a coalition of environmental and clean water groups focuses on the environmental impact of the coal industry, highlighting the critical need to clean up power plant water pollution. The report, “Closing the Floodgates: How the Coal Industry Is Poisoning Our Water and How We Can Stop It,” has 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 country, based on toxicity.
- Of the 274 coal plants that discharge coal ash and scrubber wastewater into waterways, nearly 70 percent (188) 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 (102) 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. Of these plants that are dumping toxic metals into impaired waterways, more than three out of four coal plants (59) have no permit that limits the amount of toxic metals it can dump.
- Nearly half of the coal plants surveyed (187) are operating with an expired Clean Water Act permit. Of these power plants, 53 are operating with permits that expired five or more years ago.
Based on available water permits, the groups surveyed 386 coal plants across the country and identified 274 coal plants that discharge either coal ash or scrubber wastewater. The report reviewed the extent to which the permits limit — or require monitoring of — the discharge of arsenic, boron, cadmium, lead, mercury, and selenium; the expiration date of the permits; and the health of the receiving stream.
The troubling results of the groups’ investigation are due in large part to the lack of any binding federal standards limiting toxic pollution from coal plants. Existing standards that apply to coal plant wastewater were established in 1982 and do not cover most of the worst pollutants. The EPA 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. 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 also reviewed a red-line copy of the EPA’s proposed coal plant water pollution standards that were sent to the White House’s 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.
Of the various options outlined in the EPA’s proposed standards, the strongest is “Option 5,” which would eliminate almost all toxic waste dumped into our rivers, streams, lakes and bays, reducing pollution by more than 5 billion pounds a year, and should be the option EPA selects for the final rule. The next strongest option, called “Option 4,” would eliminate ash-contaminated discharges, and apply rigorous treatment requirements for scrubber sludge; however it would only reduce pollution by 3.3 billion pounds a year, 2 billion less than Option 5. These standards should also increase available information on the amount and types of toxics dumped into our water.
According to the EPA, more than half of all toxic water pollution in the country comes from power plants, making coal-fired power plants the number one source of toxic water pollution in the U.S. The human health impacts from this pollution are serious. The EPA estimates that nearly 140,000 people per year experience increased cancer risk due to arsenic in fish from coal plants, nearly 13,000 children under the age of seven each year have reduced IQs because of lead in fish they eat, and almost 2,000 children are born with lower IQs because of mercury in fish their mothers have eaten.
"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."
“We look out for lead paint when we buy a home and we clear our kids from the room when a mercury thermometer breaks on the ground — so why would we let the coal industry dump millions of pounds of these poisons into our water?” said Mary Anne Hitt, Director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign. “Doctors and scientists know that exposure to these dangerous metals can lead to birth defects, cancer, and even death. That means the EPA’s new coal plant water pollution standards will not only clean up our water, but it will also save lives.”
“This is a problem with a solution,” said Eric Schaeffer, Executive Director of Environmental Integrity Project. "Affordable wastewater treatment technologies exist to eliminate toxic discharges and are already in use at some plants. It is time to hold the coal industry accountable for cleaning up this pollution. Americans deserve — and the law demands — common sense safeguards that protect downstream communities and our watersheds from dangerous heavy metals.”
“EPA sent over a strong rule to OMB that proposed affordable treatment solutions for a serious water pollution problem. But after closed-door meetings with industry, OMB decided to overrule the experts at EPA and propose so-called ‘preferred’ options that will give coal plants a free pass to continue dumping toxics into our waterways,“ said Abigail Dillen, Earthjustice’s Climate & Energy Vice President. “It’s outrageous that OMB is caving to coal interests instead of getting arsenic and other poisons out of our drinking water.”
"It's time for power plants to stop using rivers, lakes, streams and bays as open sewers to dump their toxic waste. It's especially a travesty that we are allowing more than 70 coal plants to dump dangerous heavy metals directly into waterways that are already impaired with those very same toxics," said Robert Wendelgass, Clean Water Action's President & CEO. "Worse still, three quarters of these plants are operating without a permit to limit the amount of toxic metals they can dump in the water. The EPA must end the power plant industries' free pass to pollute into already damaged waterways and other vital waters that are sources of drinking water for millions of Americans."
To help highlight the report’s findings and raise awareness about the EPA’s critical new coal plant water pollution standards, this week organizers will be holding local events across the country. From a “toxic lemonade stand” in Pennsylvania to a “Miss and Mr. Toxic Water Swimsuit Competition” in Missouri, and from a kayaking trip outside a coal plant in Oklahoma to a fish-less fish fry in Illinois, activists from coast to coast will be calling for the EPA to finalize the strongest possible standards to protect American families from dangerous toxic water pollution.
To view the full report, see "Closing the Floodgates: How the Coal Industry is Poisoning our Water and How We Can Stop It."