Fighting to Stop Toxic Wastewater Pollution from Coal Power Plants

Photo by Tusik Only

In the latest example of federal environmental rollbacks affecting the Potomac River, the Maryland Department of Environment (MDE) blindly followed EPA’s lead and failed to set strict limits on arsenic, mercury, lead and other toxic metals discharged from the Morgantown and Dickerson coal-fired power plants into the Potomac in their most recent Clean Water Act permits. In August the EPA announced it was delaying enforcement of new national standards designed to vastly reduce toxic wastewater discharges from coal plants finalized by the Obama administration in 2015, in order to review the economic burden of the new regulations on the electric power industry. Never mind the fact that the 2015 limits on this poisonous waste stream are based on years of scientific analysis, industry research and careful peer review.

Instead of stepping up to fight for Marylanders and the Potomac, MDE stepped aside and let EPA have its way. You won’t be surprised to hear that we rolled up our sleeves and got to work, teaming up with Sierra Club to fight MDE’s lousy permitting decision and launching an investigation of Morgantown’s operations.

EPA’s 2015 “Effluent Limitation Guideline” Rule was developed to deal with the discharge of toxic metals and other pollutants removed from coal plants’ air emissions in response to more protective air pollution standards issued over a decade ago. The same metals that were being “scrubbed” from coal plant smokestacks were being dumped with minimal treatment into our rivers and oceans, eventually forcing EPA to act. Coal-fired power plants have the dubious distinction of contributing the greatest amount of toxic pollutants to surface waters of any industry in the U.S. Without strict rules to curb this pollution, they will continue to dump millions of pounds of toxic metals into our waterways every year, threatening our drinking water, poisoning fish and crabs and degrading the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay. Technology to treat and remove metals from this waste stream is readily available and affordable – in fact, NRG, the owner of these coal plants, has estimated that complying with the EPA Rule would cost less than 1% of its annual revenue. The solution is clear: the law and science demand that protective limits on toxic metals must be required as soon as possible. Further delay only benefits the coal industry and puts the public and our rivers at risk.

PRK and Sierra Club submitted detailed comments to MDE, calling for the new permits to include strict limits on these harmful metals consistent with EPA’s 2015 Rule, and pointing out that Morgantown (Charles County) and Dickerson (Montgomery County) have routinely discharged arsenic and selenium in amounts that far exceed the EPA’s proposed limits over at least the past five years, with untold impacts to the Potomac. Dickerson discharges upstream of at least one drinking water intake for the DC Metro area, and Morgantown discharges into a section of the Potomac that provides critically valuable spawning habitat for the largest striped bass fishery on the Atlantic coast. PRK is prepared to take MDE to court to fight for a stronger permit that protects the river and our drinking water.

Meanwhile, PRK conducted an aerial patrol over the Morgantown power plant in late August that revealed rust colored discharges from a metals waste cleaning pond, along with oily sheens in the plant’s cooling water discharge canal that undoubtedly flowed into the Potomac River. PRK filed a formal complaint with MDE and requested a meeting, but at the time this article went to press we’d heard nothing. In October, Potomac Riverkeeper Dean Naujoks took the PRK patrol boat downriver to get a firsthand look at the plant, and deployed a drone to look for additional pollution. Our preliminary investigation indicates that this outdated coal plant may not be complying with its current permit and may have legacy coal pollution issues that could lead to citizen enforcement action by PRK.

Our bottom line: If EPA and Maryland are not going to protect the Potomac River, PRK will do everything in its power to fight for science based limits to protect the Potomac. And we will use the citizen enforcement tools Congress granted us when the Clean Water Act was passed 45 years ago to ensure fishable, swimmable rivers for everyone in the Potomac River watershed.