Washington, D.C. – November 9, 2010 – In response to action by leading U.S. environmental groups, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is taking action to keep pollution from coal plant smokestacks out of America’s waterways.

EPA will issue these new rules, which would protect Americans from millions of pounds of heavy metals and other toxic pollutants, by July 23, 2012, with final rules due by January 31, 2014.

The Environmental Integrity Project and Earthjustice, representing Defenders of Wildlife and the Sierra Club, put EPA on notice last year that the new clean water rules were decades overdue, leaving the American public exposed to heavy metals like arsenic, lead, chromium, and mercury.  Thanks to their work, EPA has agreed to a formal consent decree, locking in deadlines for these reforms.

EIP attorney Jennifer Peterson said: “These rules were supposed to have been written nearly 30 years ago—they are not new requirements.  Wastewater treatment is affordable, and our waterways are not a dumping ground for toxic waste from coal-fired power plants.  We appreciate EPA’s commitment to get these long overdue rules back on track.”

While EPA is now on a binding schedule to set national standards, they will not be finalized for several years. In the meantime, the Clean Water Act requires state agencies to set stringent limits on the discharge of pollutants from power plants on a case-by-case basis — a requirement that states historically have ignored.
“Until EPA finalizes new standards, it’s crucial that state agencies do their part to keep toxics out of our water,” said Earthjustice attorney Abigail Dillen.  “We hope and trust that EPA will be cracking down on permits that allow power plants to dump mercury, arsenic, selenium into drinking water and fishing streams.”

Toxic metals found in power plant wastewater discharges pose serious health and environmental risks even in very low doses. Arsenic is a known carcinogen that causes cancer of the skin, bladder and lungs. Mercury accumulates in fish and, when eaten by pregnant or nursing mothers, can seriously impact a child’s ability to write, read, and learn.  Selenium also gets concentrated up the food chain in fish and other aquatic life, impeding the growth of juvenile fish and causing skeletal deformities in offspring.

“Coal ash polluters have gotten a free pass for too long.  For decades, they have been allowed to dump heavy metals and other toxins into our rivers and creeks, poisoning native fish and the wildlife that rely on fish and other aquatic species as a food source,” said Adam Kron, staff attorney for Defenders of Wildlife. “After almost thirty years, EPA has finally taken a decisive step toward protecting aquatic species, our local waters, and our way of life by more fully regulating coal ash pollutants and keeping them out of our waterways.”

Power plants produce more toxic waste than any other industry in the U.S.  As companies install pollution controls to meet Clean Air Act requirements, toxic metals are transferred from the air and become concentrated in coal ash and wastewater.  Without strict federal rules on power plant discharges and coal ash disposal, the health of local communities and the environment remain at risk. 

“We’re pleased to see the Administration working to protect public health. These rules will help make sure that communities don’t pay for coal industry profits with clean drinking water,” said Craig Segall, Attorney, Sierra Club.

The Environmental Integrity Project (www.environmentalintegrity.org) is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization established in March of 2002 by former EPA enforcement attorneys to advocate for effective enforcement of environmental laws.  EIP has three goals:  1) to provide objective analyses of how the failure to enforce or implement environmental laws increases pollution and affects public health; 2) to hold federal and state agencies, as well as individual corporations, accountable for failing to enforce or comply with environmental laws; and 3) to help local communities obtain the protection of environmental laws.

Earthjustice is a non-profit public interest law firm dedicated to protecting the magnificent places, natural resources, and wildlife of this earth, and to defending the right of all people to a healthy environment.

Defenders of Wildlife is dedicated to the protection of all native animals and plants in their natural communities. With more than 1 million members and activists, Defenders of Wildlife is a leading advocate for innovative solutions to safeguard our wildlife heritage for generations to come. For more information, visit www.defenders.org.

The Sierra Club is America’s oldest, largest, and most influential grassroots environmental organization. Inspired by nature, we are 1.4 million of your friends and neighbors, working together to protect our communities and the planet.