SELC, partners urge EPA not to delay federal protections against coal ash pollution

A massive spill of toxin-laden coal ash and coal ash wasterwater into the Dan River in 2014 was one of several catalysts to update federal regulations limiting pollution dumped from coal-fired power plants. The Trump administration is now looking to delay the new pollution limits. (© Waterkeeper Alliance)

SELC and nearly 30 conservation organizations across the southeast are urging the Environmental Protection Agency to abandon its proposal to indefinitely delay important federal limits on harmful coal ash pollution.

SELC submitted comments last week that highlight the real-world harm of delaying such protections under the updated effluent limitation guidelines, often referred to as the ELG rule.

Finalized in 2015, the ELG rule requires utilities to equip coal-fired power plants with the best technology available to remove toxic metals like arsenic, selenium, and mercury from coal ash wastewater before it is dumped into our rivers, lakes, and drinking water sources. The rule’s built-in delays already allow utilities to comply as late as December 2023.

Yet in April, EPA announced plans to postpone the rule, effectively allowing utilities to disregard compliance deadlines and revert back to woefully inadequate standards that have not been updated for more than 30 years.

Home to a large percentage of the nation’s aging coal plants, southern states shoulder a disproportionate burden of pollution and the accompanying public health risks and ecological damage. According to a 2016 report, the southeast is home to four of the top ten mercury dischargers, including the number one mercury polluter, and several of the top ten arsenic dischargers among coal-fired power plants in the U.S.

Ahead of EPA’s proposal, some utilities in SELC’s six states have already made considerable progress toward complying with the rule at some plants and for some toxic pollutants. In South Carolina, SCE&G has reportedly already achieved compliance at its Cope Station. In North Carolina, Duke Energy has already installed treatment systems at its Allen, Belews Creek, and Roxboro plants to reduce harmful selenium pollution. At its Mayo plant, Duke has installed a treatment system to eliminate certain types of wastewater discharges altogether.

But at other sites in North and South Carolina, and for other pollutants at these sites, the ELG rule provides important protections for communities and drinking water supplies. And especially in states like Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee, where coal plants are often operating under long-expired wastewater discharge permits with no limits on harmful coal ash pollutants, the ELG rule serves as a critical backstop in protecting rivers, streams, and lakes that wildlife and communities depend on for drinking water, recreation, and tourism.

At a time when state agency budgets and staffing levels across the region have already endured deep cuts, EPA’s proposal would put additional strain on these agencies and create considerable regulatory uncertainty.

“Utilities across our region have already had ample time to comply with the rule, and some have already demonstrated it is entirely possible to reduce the burden of coal plant pollution on southern communities,” said Senior Attorney Kurt Ebersbach. “EPA’s proposal is tone deaf to these developments and sends precisely the wrong signal to an industry that is finally taking steps to address a significant ongoing environmental and public health concern.”


Click here to read the comment letter.  

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