Defending the ELG rule in DC

The steam electric power plant sector, which includes coal power plants, has a larger waste stream than all other industries combined. Until 2015, the limits for their increasingly toxic discharges had not been updated in over 30 years. The 2015 Effluent Limitation Guidelines (ELGs) finally set new limits on toxic pollution entering our rivers and lakes from coal fired power plants. However, the rule is now under attack by Administrator Pruitt’s EPA, which is trying to delay the compliance deadlines for these new limits on toxic wastes.

The EPA heard comments from citizens across the country concerned about their health and water.

Our staff member Andrew Rehn traveled to Washington DC to make comments at a public hearing on the EPA’s proposed delay. The turnout was notably in opposition of EPA’s delay. Approximately 40 speakers, including PRN, opposed the delay while only three industry speakers attended in support of it.

The EPA is attacking the ELG rule on multiple fronts. Last spring, Prairie Rivers Network joined a lawsuit to block EPA’s illegal, indefinite delay of the rule. To protect the rule, we have to win the lawsuit and defend the rule in a public rulemaking process.

An overview of the waste streams from a coal plant. The ELGs set limits on some of these waste streams for the first time. Source: EPA

Limits on toxic pollution could be lost

The ELG rules are worth protecting. In 2015, the previous administration’s EPA released new ELGs based on the best available treatment technology for coal fired power plants. They found that coal plants could reasonably be reducing the amount of toxic pollution they are putting into our rivers and lakes. The new standards included common sense technologies that were already in use in parts of the industry. One of these technologies is called ‘dry bottom ash handling’, which collects the leftover ash from burning coal without water. Unsurprisingly, this vastly reduces the toxic contamination reaching the water.

The new ELGs were not a rushed decision. The previous administration’s EPA spent years collecting data from coal plants, millions of dollars in economic and engineering studies, and months of public participation. EPA was practical in their creation of the rule. They knew it would take time for coal plants to adapt to this standard, so the compliance date was set into the future, to be implemented in each coal plant’s next discharge permit between 2018 and 2023. The rule went into effect in 2016, so coal plant operators knew what to expect.

Industry and the new EPA administrator Scott Pruitt had other ideas. Shortly after he was confirmed to EPA Administrator, Pruitt sent a letter to the governors of the states to let them know that they should not expect their utilities to have to meet the ELGs. Industry sent petitions to the EPA urging them to reconsider the rule, and not long after that, the EPA started trying to kill their own rule.

How we got to now

The ELGs are one of the mechanism through which the Clean Water Act protects our water. The Clean Water Act was passed in 1972 with the goal of eliminating pollution to America’s water. However, Congress recognized that it would take time for many industries with significant waste streams to adapt to the change, so they didn’t require industry to have zero pollutant discharge right away. Instead, the Clean Water Act requires the EPA to regularly assess the best available technology for eliminating discharge in each industry and update limits on pollutants (ELGs) to match those technologies.

In the early 80s, the Reagan-appointed EPA determined that the best available technology for treating coal wastes from coal fired power plants was to use water to wash the waste into unlined settling ponds, what we call coal ash impoundments. Settling ponds have been used for thousands of years. Putting contaminated water in a hole in the ground does not constitute a technology. The EPA made a sweetheart deal with industry to maximize profit instead of protecting the environment (“Environmental Protection Agency”) and public health.

A settling pond in North Carolina. This was the “Best Available Technology” for treating coal ash waste until 2015. Photo Credit: Waterkeeper Alliance/Rick Dove

Over the next few decades, the pollution entering the water at coal plants only got worse as the technology to control air pollution at coal plants improved. Mercury and other toxics that were once billowing from smokestacks instead now flow into unlined impoundments to ‘treat’ the waste, ending up in our rivers, lakes, and groundwater.

Despite increasing concentrations of toxic metals and an ancient treatment system, it took a lawsuit to get the EPA to revisit the ELGs for steam electric power plants, including coal plants. Sierra Club and Earthjustice sued the EPA in 2010 and won. The court ordered the EPA to update their ELGs for the steam electric industry. Those guidelines, released in 2015, are presently under attack.

Part of a bigger fight

The EPA Director of Science and Technology Elizabeth Southerland resigned on July 31st. In her resignation letter, she makes a strong defense for the ELG rule and highlights the Trump Administration’s alarming efforts to undermine regulation:

“Any environmental protection rule promulgated at any time in the past may be repealed by this administration, as well as any science or technical document ever published by EPA.”

Indeed, the ELGs are just one of a huge number of regulations that the Trump administration, many Republicans in Congress, and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt are working to remove. They have been frighteningly successful in this endeavor. Already, the Stream Protection Rule was killed via a process called Congressional Review. The US has pulled out of the Paris Climate Accord. Limitations on emissions from the transportation industry are being reconsidered. They are trying to repeal the Clean Water Rule… the list goes on.

However, there are victories. Last week, the EPA backed down on a delay of compliance deadlines for a smog rule as states and public health organizations fought to protect the rule, and PRN, it’s partners, and you helped the Trump Administration to release a crucial study on Asian Carp

While we hope that EPA may similarly back down on their delay for the ELG rule, Prairie Rivers Network and our partners across the country are digging in our heels to continue to fight for clean water and good regulations to protect that water. Join our mailing list to keep get updates about how you can help in this fight.