- The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Friday proposed to relax its technology-based effluent limits for power plants related to flue gas desulfurization wastewater and bottom ash transport water.
- The electric utility industry will "save approximately $175 million dollars annually in pre-tax compliance costs and $137 million dollars annually in social costs," according to the EPA. But an Earthjustice attorney said the proposed standards would put at risk hundreds of millions of dollars in annual public health benefits projected from the Obama EPA's 2015 update to the standards.
- EPA's proposal, first unveiled earlier this month, would update parts of a 2015 rule that required power plants to start modernizing their wastewater treatment, but never went into effect. Comments on the proposed rule are due by Jan. 21 and EPA plans to conduct an online public hearing Dec. 19.
The EPA is working to ease the regulatory burden for the nation's fossil fuel-fired power plants on a number of fronts, including relaxing rules related to carbon emissions, coal ash and pollutant discharges to water.
EPA updated the power plant effluent limits in 2015 for the first time since 1982, after environmental groups sued the agency for its lack of action. The new requirements were due to go into effect in 2018, but EPA issued an administrative stay to put the new requirements on hold in 2017, eventually leading to the current proposal.
"The real tragedy here is that there are real harms happening to communities that are downstream from these power plants while EPA plays these regulatory games in Washington," Thomas Cmar, deputy managing attorney of the coal program at Earthjustice, told Utility Dive.
EPA is proposing to take a strong set of national health protections established in 2015 to reduce the amount of pollutants U.S. power plants can dump in U.S. waterways and fill them with loopholes in the name of flexibility and cost benefits to industry, he said.
As part of the proposal, EPA included a voluntary program whereby plants could postpone compliance until 2028 if they adopt certain technology and processes to control flue gas desulfurization wastewater — a waste stream that comes from the scrubbers used to control certain air pollutants at power plants. The agency expects the voluntary program to reduce the amount of pollutants discharged in such wastewater by 105 million pounds a year.
Cmar noted two main problems with the voluntary program. EPA is not requiring any power plants to install the technology, so there's nothing guaranteeing the projected pollutant reductions will occur. In addition, EPA is advertising the technology as available, cost effective and able to eliminate more pollution, but they haven't justified why it's not being required for all power plants.
"If EPA continues to move forward with issuing an illegal rule that puts all the [2015 rule's] public health benefits at risk, we will have the ability to go to court to challenge it," he said.
"I'm not optimistic that EPA will do anything other than what industry is asking," he added.
But the group representing publicly-owned electric utilities expressed concern over the impacts of the 2015 rule.
"The reconsideration [of parts of the 2015 rule] is important to affected public power utilities because of our concerns that facilities are not able to meet the limits with the technologies that EPA identified as the 'best available technology economically achievable.'," the American Public Power Association's Director of Environmental Policy, Carolyn Slaughter, told Utility Dive via email.
"We also were concerned about the cumulative impacts of the 2015 rule and the other contemporaneous major rulemakings affecting the power sector," she continued.