New Report Highlights Extent of Coal-Plant Water Pollution

Due to a lack of federal standards limiting power-plant pollution, the majority of the United States' 386 coal plants discharge toxic pollutants into the water without regulation, monitoring, or notification.


| August 13, 2013



Power plant pollution

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. 

blackarrow
8/18/2013 5:19:12 PM

Alfred you nailed it! The artical is total BS, I've seen idiots protesting new coal plants that are replacing plants built in the 30's. The new ones are cleaner and more efficent. The thing is they have to bus the protesters in for the protest because us local folks welcome new technology. The coal industry is regulated to death and it's one of the most abundant recources we have. Yes I love conservation but this "green" stuff is crossing the line with politics to the point I don't trust most of the "studies, statistics etc. Just get some comman sense people.


alfred green
8/16/2013 7:44:27 AM

***Why show a picture of a nuclear generating station to illustrate an article about coal-fired electric generating plants. That is very disingenuous.






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