EPA Rescinds Effluent Limitations Guidelines Rule

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will review and reconsider revisions to technology-based effluent limitations guidelines (ELG) and standards finalized by the Obama administration in September 2015.

Power generators around the nation have been readying to comply with the rule that sets the first federal limits on the levels of toxic metals in wastewater discharges from steam electric power plants. Plants had been expected to comply with the rule between 2018 and 2023, depending on when they need a new Clean Water Act permit.

As with nearly every environmental rule promulgated by the Obama administration, the ELG rule has been challenged in court by a coalition of utilities led by the Southwestern Electric Power Co. That case, Southwestern Elec. Power Co. v. EPA, et al, No. 15-60821, currently under review by the Fifth Circuit, consolidates seven separate petitions for review.

According to a statement issued by the EPA on April 13, the agency said it would review and reconsider the rule, which it noted, “has been estimated to cost $480 million per year and has a reported average cost of $1.2 billion per year during the first five years of compliance.”

It also noted that the EPA had issued an administrative stay to delay the compliance deadlines for the ELG rule as long as the litigation was ongoing.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said in the statement: “This action is another example of EPA implementing President Trump’s vision of being good stewards of our natural resources, while not developing regulations that hurt our economy and kill jobs.”

The EPA’s decision to review the rule and stay the compliance deadlines, however, is likely in response to a March 24 petition from the Utility Water Act Group calling on the agency to reconsider the rule. The industry group—which describes itself as a “voluntary, ad hoc, non-profit, unincorporated group of 163 individual energy companies and three national trade associations of energy companies: the Edison Electric Institute, the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, and the American Public Power Association”—claimed in the petition that the rule would cause negative impacts on jobs due to the excessive costs of compliance.

Costs, it said, “were grossly underestimated by EPA.”

Dynegy, the petition claims, estimated its costs of compliance with the ELG rule to total approximately $308 million, “with $41 million to be spent in less than one year and $178 million to be spent within three years.” Similarly, it says, NRG Energy anticipates that its total ELG costs will be approximately $200 million. American Electric Power expects that ELG Rule compliance costs between 2018 and 2023 could range from $400 million to $550 million. The group also claims that smaller, local utilities are also experiencing high compliance costs relative to their lower numbers of ratepayers.

The group also said the rule would cause regulatory burdens, forcing plant closures.

As could be expected, environmental groups railed against the EPA’s decision to review the rule. “Trump’s attempt to halt these clean water protections for mercury, lead, and arsenic from coal power plants is dangerous and irresponsible. After years of peer-reviewed studies, extensive input from medical experts and scientists, and thorough review of public comments, the EPA made the right call in finalizing strong clean water protections against coal plants dumping toxic heavy metals into our waterways,” said Mary Anne Hitt, who heads the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign.

“Trump claimed he wanted EPA to go ‘back to basics’ and focus on clean air and water in his Administration, but one of the first actions by his EPA Administrator is an attempt to gut an important water pollution safeguard. This is appalling.”

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