A coalition of environmental organizations recently released a report claiming that coal-fired power plants have become the premier source of toxic water pollution in the United States, annually dumping billions of pounds of noxious discharge into the nation’s waterways with impunity.
And, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, water pollution from power plants is expected to increase as pollutants are increasingly captured by air pollution controls and transferred to wastewater discharges.
“In short, coal plants have used our rivers, lakes, and streams as their own private waste dumps for decades,” stated the report, “Closing the Floodgates: How the Coal Industry Is Poisoning Our Water and How We Can Stop It.”
Environmental researchers combed through the Environmental Protection Agency’s Enforcement and Compliance History Online (ECHO) database and discharge permits and found that out of 386 reviewed coal plants across the country, 274—including seven in Maryland—are depositing metal-laden coal ash and scrubber wastewater into waterways nationwide.
For example, the report claimed, power plants discharge approximately 2 .2 million pounds per year of nitrogen to the Chesapeake Bay, alone, upsetting its ecological balance.
“None of these have limits on the amounts of toxic metals like arsenic, boron, cadmium, mercury and selenium they are allowed to dump into public waters,” the report stated. And many are not under any obligation to report how much pollution they are discharging to federal authorities.
“This report makes it clear that coal plant owners in Maryland need a lesson in common sense,” said Chris Hill, conservation Representative, Maryland Sierra Club. “When coal plants dump poisons into our waterways, it threatens public health, drinking water and recreation opportunities throughout Maryland.”
Requests for comment from the AFRO on the matter from Riverstone Holdings LLC, parent company to Raven Power Holdings, which owns coal-fired power plants in Baltimore, drew no response.
Hill added that the report also highlights the importance of more stringent federal standards and enforcement.
“This report demonstrates the importance of strong EPA standards when it comes to water pollution from coal plants around the country,” she said.
“Some of the toxic chemicals are very dangerous and could lead to birth defects, cancer, even death,” she added. “It’s common sense: If we reduce the toxins in our waterways our children will be less likely to get sick.”
EPA standards for limiting discharge from coal-fired plants have not been updated since 1982, a lag that has led to the explosion in the volume and mass of their pollutant discharges.
“They take forever (to institute updated standards) and sometimes it doesn’t matter that people are suffering,” Hill, the Sierra Club spokeswoman, said. Delays can be caused by review processes, she added, and “especially with pressure from the coal industry it takes longer.”
In response to a request for an interview, the EPA e-mailed a statement pointing to its draft of proposals to refresh those standards and reduce pollution from steam electric power plants, including coal-fired plants, which were released in April.
“EPA estimates that the regulations would reduce pollutant discharges by 470 million to 2.62 billion pounds annually and reduce water use by 50 billion to 103 billion gallons per year,” the agency said in the statement.
But the environmental groups claim that the White House Office of Management and Budget has weakened the proposed standards, exempting some smaller plants—among other changes—and effectively reducing how much pollution is eliminated, as seen from a redline copy of the proposal showing the original options and the revisions.
“Americans deserve better,” the report read. “After thirty-one years of delay, and billions upon billions of pounds of toxic pollution, the public deserves strong, national standards that protect downstream communities and are based on science—not a weak rule based on politics.”
EPA is requesting public comment on the proposal, which should be received by no later than Sept. 20, 2013. The agency is under a consent decree to take final action by May 22, 2014.