EPA Rolls Back Effluent Limits for Power Plants

posted on Friday, September 4, 2020 in Water and Land News

On August 31, EPA announced it was finalizing the “Steam Electric Reconsideration Rule,” adopting a proposal that rolls back the requirements limiting toxic discharges from coal power plants. IEC believes this change is misguided, will worsen water quality, and is a clear attempt to prop up dirty and expensive coal power plants.

Crops with coal plant in the distance

The new rule allows more time for facilities to comply with discharge requirements, on top of an existing delay to comply with a standard adopted in 2015. It exempts facilities scheduled to retire soon or that will switch fuel sources, and allows them to continue discharging toxic metals at the same rate for years. It also changes the technology the power plants must install.

EPA adopted standards for the exact same discharges in 2015, but then extended the compliance date until the completion of the new rule – which provides a further extension for compliance. The approach of delaying implementation of rules and adopting weaker standards is a tactic we have seen before. “It is always unfortunate whenever we see backsliding of environmental standards," said IEC Energy and Climate Policy Specialist Steve Guyer. “This is especially troubling when we just keep kicking the compliance date tin can down the road.”   

The rule adopts new “effluent limit guidelines” under the Clean Water Act for nitrogen and for toxic metals, including mercury, arsenic, and selenium. This guideline sets water quality discharge standards for industrial discharges based on the best technology that is economically achievable from coal power plants – which, despite its name, is not the most stringent technology-based standard.

Instead, it allows the facility to determine what treatment to install that will meet the discharge limits. It sets water quality standards for facility discharges that carry ash that drops out when Coal ash close upburning coal, as well as the residue that results from removing sulfur from air emissions. “Regulations are meant to be protective of the environment, not the industries that cause pollution,” said IEC Water Program Director Ingrid Gronstal Anderson. “Over the last several years, EPA has been rolling back environmental standards in favor of economic interests. This abdication of regulatory responsibility is a clear danger to public health and the environment.”

EPA claims the new rule will reduce pollution more than the 2015 version, but EPA’s calculation assumes more reductions than are actually required by the rule. In other words, while setting a standard to reflect the “best available technology economically achievable,” it also assumes many facilities will install better technology to comply with other requirements.

Iowa’s progress in renewable energy has resulted in coal power plant production dropping sharply in the last year, including reductions by most of the facilities in Iowa. However, by adopting a rule that further delays the implementation of important water quality standards, EPA has provided Iowa coal facilities an incentive to continue to operate -- the equivalent of a get out of jail free card. 

About The Author

Michael Schmidt returned to Iowa and joined the Council in 2019. He most recently worked as a staff attorney for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, where he focused on clean water and mining issues through enforcement, permitting, and rulemaking actions. He previously worked in the water program for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, a state-based nonprofit, where he engaged in legal and policy advocacy, including passage of the state’s Clean Water Accountability Act. He has a law degree from the University of Minnesota and a B.A. in political science from the University of Iowa.

  1. carbon pollution
  2. climate change
  3. coal
  4. nitrate pollution