(Bloomberg) — The Trump administration is relaxing Obama-era requirements stemming toxic heavy metal pollution from coal-fired power plants.
Under the Environmental Protection Agency rule being unveiled Monday, electricity companies will have more time and flexibility to treat power plant wastewater that contains mercury, arsenic and other toxic heavy metals. Older coal power plants that are shutting down or switching to natural gas by 2028 will also be exempted from the requirements altogether.
It’s the latest move by the Trump administration to bolster the U.S. coal industry, which has flagged as power companies embrace cheaper and cleaner alternatives, from natural gas to renewable wind. Power utilities including Southern Company, Duke Energy Corp., and Xcel Energy Inc., had lobbied for the relief.
The measure targets the pollution unleashed when power companies clean up coal-fired power plants, including sulfur dioxide captured by emissions-control equipment inside smokestacks. Plant operators also often rely on water to flush toxic coal ash from the bottom of furnaces. For more than a decade, environmentalists have warned the practice imperils American waterways.
The EPA estimates its changes will still stem a million pounds of power plant pollution each year, even as it saves electric companies at least $127 million in compliance costs over the earlier, 2015 Obama-era requirements.
The new rule gives power plant operators flexibility to take their time adopting newer, faster-acting treatment technologies that will be just as good at paring pollution as the technology dictated by the earlier regulation, an EPA official said.
The requirements will be phased in over an eight-year period for plants that either will stop burning coal by 2028 or which voluntarily adopt more stringent standards for mercury, arsenic, selenium and other compounds. Power plants that stop burning coal by 2028 may be able to dispose their waste in unlined surface impoundments, which also are slated for closing around the same time.
The earlier 2015 measure updated then-23-year-old treatment requirements and compelled power companies to stop using water in favor of dry-handling methods for coal ash. America’s Power, a group advocating coal-fired electricity, called the Obama-era standards “overly stringent,” warning the Trump administration in January that without changes, the requirements would push more coal plants to close.
Already, over the past decade, companies have shut down or announced plans to close nearly 700 coal-fired power plants with some 133,200 megawatts of electric generating capacity. The closures represent nearly half of the coal fleet that was operating in 2010, according to America’s Power.
By the EPA’s own estimates, discharges from steam-based power plants, many using coal, are the nation’s third-largest source of toxic wastewater, occurring near roughly 100 public drinking water intakes and more than 1,500 public wells across the nation. Coal plant wastewater can contain a slew of heavy metals, including mercury, selenium and arsenic, a neurotoxin that even at non-lethal levels can cause cancer and impair the brains of developing children.
The new Trump administration rule ignores a federal appeals court ruling last year ordering the EPA to go in the other direction by establishing requirements for managing and treating coal ash-laden wastewater that power plants generated until 2018. The Obama administration omitted those requirements from the 2015 rule, and the Trump administration said it plans to address the issue in a separate rulemaking process.
The EPA is also leaving some decisions to state authorities — including what technologies will be required at some small-volume facilities and how to deal with discharges of bromides that cause carcinogenic byproducts to form when water is later disinfected for drinking. Water utilities have asked the EPA to broadly regulate bromide discharges, but the agency asserts that is a site-specific issue best handled locally.
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