EPA Proposes Revisions to Steam Electric Power Plant Effluent Guidelines

Revisions proposed on Friday by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to technology-based effluent limitations guidelines and standards could set the first federal limits on the levels of toxic metals in wastewater discharges from steam electric power plants. The proposed rule would help reduce pollutants in U.S. waterways from coal ash, air pollution control waste, and other power plant waste, but they could come at a cost of between $185.2 million to nearly $1 billion a year, the agency said.

The proposed rule generally establishes new or additional requirements for wastewater streams from processes or byproducts associated with flue gas desulfurization (FGD), fly ash, bottom ash, flue gas, flue gas mercury control, and gasification of fuels to include coal, petroleum, and coke.

The agency proposed several options in the rulemaking, identifying four preferred alternatives for regulation of discharges from existing sources. The four preferred options (summarized here on page 5) propose the same requirements for most waste streams but differ in the number of waste streams covered, the size of the units controlled, and the stringency of the controls that would be imposed. All options apply to coal-fired units ranging in size from greater than 50 MW to plants with at least 2,000 MW.

For new sources, the EPA proposes to establish New Source Performance Standards applicable to all facilities, including oil-fired ones, and smaller coal plants. This rule could include zero-discharge standards for fly ash and bottom ash water and water from mercury flue gas control systems, as well as numeric standards for a range of other waste streams.

A Proposed Alignment with the Forthcoming Coal Ash Rule

As part of the rule, the EPA also said it was considering establishing best management practices requirements that would apply to surface impoundments containing coal combustion residuals (ash ponds, or flue gas desulfurization ponds). This aspect of the rule would align with a related rule for coal combustion residuals proposed in 2010 under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, the agency said. "The two rules would apply to many of the same facilities and would work together to reduce pollution associated with coal ash and related wastes. EPA is seeking comment from industry and other stakeholders to ensure that both final rules are aligned to reduce pollution efficiently and minimize regulatory burdens."

Significantly, the proposed rule also says the EPA is considering establishing a voluntary program that would provide incentives for existing power plants that "dewater and close their surface impoundments containing combustion residuals, and for power plants that eliminate the discharge of all process wastewater (excluding cooling water discharges).”

“Economically Achievable” Costs

Costs associated with the proposed rule "would be economically achievable,” the EPA says. While the preferred regulatory options identified in the proposal could reduce pollutant discharges by 0.47 billion to 2.62 billion pounds a year, and reduce water use by 50 billion to 103 billion gallons per year, associated costs range from $185 million to $954 million (see cost-benefit analysis here on p. 25). The least costly option ($185 million per year), Option 3a, calls for zero-discharge limits for fly ash transport water and mercury flue gas control and would apply to coal-fired units greater than 50 MW. Comparatively, the most expensive alternative ($954 million per year), Option 4a, calls for zero-discharge for bottom ash transport water and would apply to units of at least 400 MW.

"Fewer than half of coal-fired power plants are estimated to incur costs under any of the proposed standards, because most power plants already have the technology and procedures in place to meet the proposed pollution control standards," the agency said. "For example, over 80% of coal plants already have dry handling systems for fly ash that avoid wastewater discharge."

EPA: Rules Needed to Replace Outdated Guidelines

Current effluent guidelines and standards for the steam electric power industry were last updated in 1982, but the EPA said they do "not adequately address the associated toxic metals discharged to surface waters from facilities in [the power] industry. New technologies for generating power had also been developed since 1982, the agency said, and widespread implementation of air pollution controls over the last three decades had "altered existing wastewater streams or created new wastewater streams at many power plants, particularly at coal-fired plants."

According to the EPA, steam electric power plants alone contribute more than half of the toxic pollutants discharged to water bodies by all industrial categories currently regulated in the U.S. It claims more than 23,000 miles of rivers and streams are damaged by steam electric plant discharges—which include arsenic, mercury, lead, boron, cadmium, selenium, chromium, nickel, thallium, vanadium, zinc, nitrogen, chlorides, bromides, iron, copper, and aluminum.

About 1,200 steam electric power plants generate electricity using nuclear fuel or fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas in the U.S. About 500 of these power plants are coal-fired units.

The agency says, however, that it was compelled to revise existing effluent guidelines in accordance with a consent decree ( Defenders of Wildlife v. EPA) reached with environmental groups in 2010. As a result of that settlement, the EPA agreed to sign a notice of proposed rulemaking by April 19, 2013, and to sign a decision taking final action by May 22, 2014.

Ensuing Effluent Litigation Battles

On Tuesday, just days after the EPA issued its effluent guideline revisions, a federal court rejected a request from the Utility Water Act Group to overturn the 2010 consent decree between environmental groups and the EPA. The group, comprising power companies and trade associations, had argued that the rules stemming from the settlement could prove costly and were issued too quickly.

“The consent decree does not require EPA to promulgate a new, stricter rule,” wrote Judge Karen LeCraft Henderson of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. "Instead, it merely requires that EPA conduct a rulemaking and then decide whether to promulgate a new rule—the content of which is not in any way dictated by the consent decree—using a specific timeline." Henderson also said that the power sector group failed to prove more damages than the "possibility of potentially adverse regulation."

The EPA’s new proposal announced last week will receive a 60-day comment period and must be finalized by May 22, 2014.

Sources: POWERnews, EPA

—Sonal Patel, Senior Writer (@POWERmagazine, @sonalcpatel)