EPA Suspends New Limits on Toxic Emissions from Coal Fired Power Plants

Photo by Tusik Only

In yet another assault on clean water, the EPA recently announced its indefinite delay of new pollution limits for coal fired power plants, known as “Effluent Limitation Guidelines” (ELG) issued by President Obama’s EPA in 2015. After thirty years of inaction by EPA, these new limits on discharges of arsenic, mercury, lead and other toxic metals from coal power plants into our waterways would have prevented millions of pounds of harmful metals from being dumped into our rivers, polluting drinking water and poisoning fish across the country.

EPA Administrator Pruitt touted the coal industry’s difficulty in complying with the limits as the proof that EPA had overreached and ignored the economic impacts of its regulations. In truth, many power plant companies have already upgraded their plants to reduce toxic pollution — the rule only applies to 12% of the power industry. The widespread use of treatment to remove these harmful metals shows that the industry can absorb the cost. These outdated power plants are the largest source of toxic water pollution by industry in the country, accounting for 30% of all toxic pollution dumped into waterways by industries regulated under the Clean Water Act. Our waterways, communities and children will be irreversibly harmed if EPA succeeds in its effort to put this rule on hold indefinitely.

EPA’s rollback of the ELG Rule hits our Potomac watershed directly. In Maryland, NRG’s Dickerson and Morgantown coal power plants on the Potomac are under a federal court settlement following a Potomac Riverkeeper enforcement action, which requires these plants to comply with the new ELG limits on mercury, arsenic and selenium. Once EPA formally suspended the deadlines, Maryland regulators quickly walked back their commitment and will not require new limits on these toxic metals until a new rule or deadlines are set. Despite the state’s clear authority to set protective limits on these metals regardless of EPA’s stance, Maryland is cowing to industry pressure and blaming EPA for its failure to protect the Potomac and millions of people who depend on it for clean drinking water. This is what happens when EPA removes the “floor” of environmental protection – states are unwilling to take up the fight in the absence of EPA leadership.

But with Waterkeeper Alliance’s support, Potomac Riverkeeper Network and other Keepers in our region are fighting back. In response to Waterkeeper legal pressure, EPA agreed to hold a single public hearing on the ELG Rule suspension on July 31st in D.C. Phillip Musegaas of PRKN joined Waterkeeper Alliance President Bobby Kennedy, Jr., Baltimore Harbor and Gunpowder Riverkeepers, Waterkeepers Chesapeake, and a host of other water advocates to denounce this latest recidivist action by EPA.

Bobby Kennedy Jr. ended the hearing by blasting EPA’s abdication of its legal and moral responsibility to protect the public from lead, mercury, arsenic and other toxic pollution, putting industry profits ahead of public health. In powerful testimony, Kennedy called out EPA for ignoring the risk of long term, severe health impacts to children caused by mercury poisoning. He also questioned the basis for EPA’s action, stating: “This hearing is illegal. I know the Clean Water Act and Administrative Procedure Act backwards and forwards. Nothing in there gives you authority to suspend a rule. There has already been a rulemaking that gave us the limits that EPA is now trying to destroy.” PRKN is coordinating with Waterkeeper and other national groups to fight this reckless and harmful action, and will be holding Maryland regulators accountable for their failure to hold the line here on the Potomac River.