Monday, August 19, 2013

Waterkeeper Alliance Report on Coal Plant Water Pollution

According to a new report by a coalition of environmental groups*, "CLOSING THE FLOODGATES: How The Coal Industry Is Poisoning Our Water and How We Can Stop It," claims that coal-fired power plants are the largest source of toxic water pollution in the United States based on toxicity, dumping billions of pounds of pollution into America’s rivers, lakes, and streams each year.

The waste from coal plants, also known as coal combustion waste, includes coal ash and sludge from pollution controls called "scrubbers" that contaminate ground and surface waters with toxic heavy metals and other pollutants. These pollutants, including lead and mercury, can be dangerous to humans and wreak havoc in  watersheds even in very small amounts.The toxic metals in this waste do not degrade over time and many bio-accumulate, increasing in concentration as they travel up the food chain, ultimately collecting in human bodies, and the bodies of children.

Existing national standards meant to control coal plant water pollution are thirty-one years old and fail to set any limits on many dangerous pollutants.  The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is proposing to update these outdated standards, in order to curb discharges of arsenic, boron, cadmium, lead, mercury, selenium, and other heavy metals from coal plants.  Although the Clean Water Act requires the EPA and states to set pollution limits for power plants in the absence of federal standards, states have routinely allowed unlimited discharges of this dangerous pollution.

The report's review of 386 coal-fired power plants across the country demonstrates that
 the Clean Water Act has been almost universally ignored by power companies and permitting agencies.  The survey is based on the EPA’s Enforcement and Compliance History Online (ECHO) database and the Waterkeeper Alliance's review of discharge permits for coal-fired power plants.  For each plant, the Waterkeeper Alliance reviewed permit and monitoring requirements for arsenic, boron, cadmium, lead, mercury, and selenium; the health of the receiving water; and the permit’s expiration date.
The analysis reveals that:  
  • Nearly 70 percent of the coal plants that discharge coal ash and scrubber wastewater are allowed to dump unlimited amounts of arsenic, boron, cadmium, mercury, and selenium into public waters, in violation of the Clean Water Act.

  • Only about 63 percent of these coal plants are required to monitor and report discharges of arsenic, boron, cadmium, mercury, and selenium.

  • Only about 17% of the permits for the 71 coal plants discharging into waters impaired for arsenic, boron, cadmium, lead, mercury, or selenium contained a limit for the pollutant responsible for degrading water quality.

  • Nearly half of the plants surveyed are discharging toxic pollution with an expired Clean Water Act permit.Fifty-three power plants are operating with permits that expired five or more years ago.

  • In short, according to the report, coal plants have used rivers, lakes, and streams as their own private waste dumps for decades.

    The reports makes numerous additonal points about pollution from coal-fired power plants.  These dangerous discharges have serious consequences for communities that live near coal-fired power plants and their dumps across the United States.  Tens of thousands of miles of rivers are degraded by this pollution. The EPA has identified more than 250 individual instances where coal plants have harmed ground or surface waters. Because many coal power plants sit on recreational lakes and reservoirs, or upstream of drinking water supplies, those thousands of miles of poisoned waters have an impact on people across the country.

    According to the report, coal water pollution raises cancer risks, makes fish unsafe to eat, and can inflict lasting brain damage on children. Americans do not need to live with these dangerous discharges.

    Wastewater treatment technologies that drastically reduce, and even eliminate, discharges of toxic pollution are widely available, and are already in use at some power plants in the United States. According to the EPA, coal plants can eliminate coal ash wastewater entirely by moving to dry ash handling techniques. Scrubber discharges can also be treated with common sense technologies such as chemical precipitation, biological treatment, and vapor compression to reduce or eliminate millions of tons of toxic pollution. The EPA’s recent proposal to set long overdue standards contains multiple options, including strong standards that would require the elimination of the majority of coal plant water pollution using technologies that are available and cost-effective. (WaterkeeperAlliance)

    * The Environmental Integrity Project, The Sierra Club, Clean Water Action, Earth Justice, Waterkeeper Alliance.

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