EPA Finalizes Steam Electric Power Plant Effluent Guidelines

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has finalized revisions to technology-based effluent limitations guidelines and standards, setting the first federal limits on the levels of toxic metals in wastewater discharges from steam electric power plants. 

The new rule sets stringent new requirements for the discharge of arsenic, mercury, selenium, and nitrogen in wastewater streams from flue gas desulfurization, and it requires zero-discharge of pollutants in ash transport water. It also establishes zero-discharge pollutant limits for flue gas mercury control wastewater, and strictly limits arsenic, mercury, selenium, and total dissolved solids in coal gasification wastewater, based on evaporation technology. Under the rule, new coal or petcoke plants are subject to even stricter controls.

Only 134 steam electric power plants of the nation’s total of 1080 (or 28% of the nation’s coal-fired or petroleum coke-fired power plants) may need to make new investments to comply with the rule, the EPA said. However, the agency puts annual compliance costs for the final rule at $480 million per year.

Plants must comply between 2018 and 2023, depending on when they need a new Clean Water Act permit. The final rule does not apply to plants that are oil-fired plants or smaller than 50 MW.

“The final Steam Electric Effluent Limitation Guidelines are strong but reasonable– based on technologies that are readily available and broadly used in the industry today, reinforcing the ongoing trend towards cleaner, more modern plants,” the EPA said in a statement. “The standards provide flexibility in implementation through a phased-in approach, allowing plant owners to pursue integrated strategies to meet these requirements.”

The EPA’s April 2013–proposed revisions to the steam electric power plant effluent guidelines stem from a 2009 study, in which the EPA found that current rules, last updated in 1982, do not “adequately” address the pollutants being discharged and have not kept pace with changes that have occurred in the power sector. Pollutants of concern include metals—mercury, arsenic, and selenium—nutrients, and total dissolved solids.

The agency has admitted that as proposed, the rules could come at a cost of between $185.2 million to nearly a $1 billion a year. The Office of Management and Budget prioritizes the rule as “economically significant.

The final rule was issued today following years of legal wrangling. In April 2014, the EPA and  environmental groups Defenders of Wildlife and the Sierra Club agreed to amend the consent decree to extend the schedule for completion of the final rulemaking by nearly 16 months beyond the original May 22, 2014, legal deadline.

Jim Wedeking, an environmental litigator with Sidley Austin LLP, told POWER on Wednesday that legal challenges to the rule are likely to continue.

I think that industry will likely argue that EPA’s record does not support some of the technology determinations, such as chemical precipitation and biological treatment for FGD wastewater and dry handling/closed-loop handling for bottom ash, and that EPA’s cost estimates are not properly supported (that is, the significantly underestimated the costs of these controls),” he said.

If there is an industry challenge, environmental groups will likely get involved to defend the rule, Wedeking predicted. “I believe they got everything that they wanted out of this rule.  If they do have a complaint it will be that the compliance time is too long (3-8 years), but I really doubt that will be enough of a reason to file their own legal challenges.”

Sonal Patel, associate editor (@POWERmagazine, @sonalcpatel)

CORRECTED (Oct. 1): A previous version erroneously stated 134 coal plants will incur some costs. The EPA says it estimates about 134 steam electric plants will be affected. POWER regrets the error.