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Coal-fired Power Plant Water Pollution

by: Paul Kando

Acid rain from coal-fired power plant air pollution has plagued Maine for decades. Now a new report, Closing the Floodgates: How the Coal Industry Is Poisoning Our Water and How We Can Stop It, spotlights the plants' water pollution. Of 386 coal-fired power plants surveyed across the country, the report identifies 274 that discharge coal ash or scrubber wastewater. Of the 274 plants 188 observe no limits on the toxics they dump directly into rivers, lakes, streams and bays; 102 are not required to monitor or report such discharges; and 71 discharge toxics into water bodies already impaired by poor water quality. More than three out of four of the 71 have no permit that limits the amount of toxic metals they may dump and nearly half of all plants surveyed operate with an expired Clean Water Act permit.

Water Pollution Sign
photo credit: Wikipedia

These troubling results are due mostly to the lack of any binding federal standard limiting toxic water discharges by coal-fired power plants. Existing standards for coal plant wastewater date back to 1982 and don't cover the worst pollutants. The EPA acknowledges that regulations have not kept pace with developments, yet for more than three decades it has failed to set new standards, until last April, as a result of federal court litigation, the agency finally proposed the first ever national standards to limit toxics dumped into waterways by coal-fired plants. A copy of the proposed standards was sent to the White House's Office of Management and Budget (OMB) before the standards were released. There, under industry pressure, OMB wrote weaker options into the draft rule prepared EPA's expert staff.

Of the various options in EPA's proposed standards, the strongest would eliminate almost all toxic waste dumped into rivers, streams, lakes and bays, reducing pollution by more than 5 billion pounds a year. This should be the option the EPA selects for the final rule. The next strongest option would reduce pollution by only 3.3 billion pounds a year. The standards would also increase public information on the amount and types of toxics dumped into water bodies.

According to the EPA, more than half of all toxic water pollution in the country comes from power plants, making coal-fired plants the worst water polluters in the United States. The health impacts of this pollution are serious. The agency estimates that each year 140,000 people suffer increased cancer risk due to arsenic in fish originating from coal plants, 13,000 children under the age of seven have reduced IQs because of lead in fish they eat, and 2,000 children are born with lower IQs because of mercury in fish their mothers have eaten.

Said Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., President of Waterkeeper Alliance, at the unveiling of the report: 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. The Clean Water Act is one of our nation's greatest achievements, but 40 years after [it] was passed, the coal industry is still polluting with impunity, thanks to a loophole no other industry has enjoyed. Doctors and scientists know that exposure to these dangerous metals can lead to birth defects, cancer, and even death. The EPA's new coal plant water pollution standards will not only clean up our water, but will also save lives, added Mary Anne Hitt, Director of the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign. This is a problem with a solution. Affordable wastewater treatment technologies exist to eliminate toxic discharges and are already in use at some plants, offered Eric Schaeffer, Executive Director of Environmental Integrity Project. It is time to hold the coal industry accountable for cleaning up this pollution. Americans deserve - and the law demands - commonsense 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 and propose so-called 'preferred' options that will give coal plants a free pass to continue dumping toxics into our waterways, observed Abigail Dillen, Earthjustice's Climate & Energy Vice President. 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 already damaged waterways and other vital waters that are sources of drinking water for millions of Americans.

Growing parts of the world, including 31 US states, already suffer from shortages of clean water, including major agricultural regions. Our food supply is at risk. It is high time to hold the energy industry accountable - coal plants, "frackers" for gas and oil, etc. - for using water, part of our commons, sparingly and responsibly. Beyond regulations, we must demand that all energy, regardless of source, be priced to reflect the full cost of its production and delivery. No externalities!