The Environmental Protection Agency announced it will write rules to limit the release of pollutants including toxic metals into America's rivers, lakes and streams from coal-fired power plants. The announcement comes two months after Earthjustice pressed the agency to take action in a letter signed by over 40 conservation groups.
The EPA agreed that equipment required to reduce air pollution from coal plants is creating a liquid waste stream that is laden with harmful contaminants, particularly heavy metals such as selenium, cadmium, mercury and lead. After leaving this pollution unregulated for decades, the agency has acknowledged that rules are needed to protect drinking water, fish, and wildlife.
"We are relieved that EPA is ready to do something about this national pollution problem that has gone on way too long," said Earthjustice attorney Abigail Dillen. "The agency has already done the groundwork to make responsible rules, and so we are going to be urging them to move quickly. The amount of mercury, selenium and other metals that is being dumped into waters across the country is just too harmful to ignore any longer."
The toxic byproducts of coal burning that would otherwise be released out of the power plants' smokestacks and into the air but are now captured by "scrubbing" systems and end up in a liquid slurry. Once the solids settle out of the slurry, the polluted wastewater is discharged into rivers, lakes and streams.
Water pollution is also coming from landfills and storage ponds where the ash left over from coal burning is dumped.
All of this pollution is avoidable. Previous EPA studies have found that many coal plants around the country have installed pollution control systems to eliminate all discharges of scrubber wastewater, and the same technology could be used to limit or eliminate other discharges as well. However, current regulations do not set any limits at all on the discharge of most toxic metals that are present in coal combustion wastes,
EPA says it will have new rules by 2012, but Earthjustice will push the agency to speed that timeline up.
Last March, Earthjustice attorney Abigail Dillen challenged a permit that would allow a coal-fired power plant in Pennsylvania to discharge mercury, cadmium, selenium, lead and other toxic metals into the Monongahela River. The Monongahela is a drinking water source for more than 350,000 people living south of Pittsburgh. This case highlights the need for prompt action by EPA. Appropriate rules would make it clear that industry is required not only to clean up air pollution but to protect water quality as well.
Abigail Dillen, Earthjustice, (212) 791-1881, ext. 221