Proposed Effluent Guidelines Lay Out Options for New, Existing Power Plants

By Amena H. Saiyid

The Environmental Protection Agency has laid out a series of regulatory options that power plants fired by fossil fuels and nuclear energy could use to comply with proposed effluent guidelines in a move the agency said reflects the growing problem of power plant discharges.

For existing power plants, EPA is proposing four preferred options, and it has identified a single option for controlling discharges from new power plants. The agency also is seeking comment on other options for both existing and new plants.

The regulatory options are outlined in a proposed rule signed April 19 to address discharges of toxic pollutants such as mercury, zinc, phosphorus, and selenium from 1,200 power plants nationwide, as well as from any new plants coming on line.

The options are based on varying levels of treatment for seven different waste streams generated by the plants (2013 WLPM, 4/24/13).

New or Additional Requirements

The proposed rule would establish new or additional requirements for wastewater associated with the following processes and byproducts--flue gas desulfurization, fly ash, bottom ash, flue gas mercury control, combustion residual leachate from landfills and surface impoundments, nonchemical metal cleaning wastes, and gasification of fuels such as coal and petroleum coke.

Among the four options for existing sources, EPA would require power plants to use best professional judgment to determine how to control toxic pollutant discharges from one of the waste streams--flue gas desulfurization units, or scrubbers. Under that option, power plants would have to capture dry fly ash and transport bottom ash wastewater to coal ash ponds.

This option drew the most criticism from environmental groups that sued EPA to force it to revise the effluent guidelines, which have not been updated since 1982. EPA agreed to the rulemaking under a 2010 court-approved settlement (Defenders of Wildlife v. Jackson, D.D.C., No. 1:10-cv-01915, 12/10/12; 2013 WLPM, 3/13/13).

New Technologies Drive Revisions

EPA said current rules do not adequately address toxic pollutants discharged from the electric power industry, nor have they kept pace with process changes that have occurred over the past three decades.

The development of new technologies for generating power, such as coal gasification, and the widespread implementation of air pollution controls, including flue gas desulfurization, selective catalytic reduction, and flue gas mercury controls, have altered existing waste streams or created new wastewater streams at many plants, EPA said.

As a result, pollutant discharges from power plants are growing in volume and total mass each year and currently account for approximately 50-60 percent of all toxic pollutants discharged into surface waters by all industrial categories regulated under the Clean Water Act, according to the agency.

EPA estimates that the new regulations would reduce pollutant discharges by 470 million to 2.62 billion pounds annually and reduce water use by 50 billion to 103 billion gallons per year. The proposed limits, which are based on EPA data gathered from technology in use at power plants, would be phased in between 2017 and 2022.

The agency estimates the annual costs of the proposed rule at between $185 million and $954 million and says it would be economically achievable.

Fewer than half of coal-fired power plants would incur costs under any of the preferred options because many plants already have the technology and procedures in place to meet the proposed standards, according to EPA. As an example, the agency said more than 80 percent of coal plants already have dry handling systems for fly ash that avoid wastewater.

Power plants that are smaller than 50 megawatts would not be impacted by the new standards, EPA said.

Differences in Preferred Options

The four preferred options differ in the number of waste streams covered, the size of the units controlled, and the stringency of the treatment controls to be imposed.

The proposed rule would amend 40 C.F.R. Part 423, which governs effluent guidelines--technology-based regulations to control industrial wastewater discharges.

EPA has proposed effluent guidelines for new sources that would require numeric standards for mercury, arsenic, selenium, and nitrate-nitrite in discharges of scrubber wastewater, among other requirements.

In another preferred option, EPA proposed that power plants generating at least 2,000 megawatts be required to subject wastewater from their flue gas desulfurization units to chemical and biological treatment.

For power plants generating less than 2,000 megawatts, EPA's preferred option would allow utilities to use best professional judgment to control effluent from that waste stream.

EPA has requested comment on the proposed 50-megawatt threshold applicable to discharges of the waste streams described under each of the preferred options, and on other possible thresholds for small units.

Best Management Practices

Under the proposed rule, EPA is considering establishing best management practices for coal ash and scrubber waste ponds for existing plants.

The agency also is considering establishing a voluntary program that would provide incentives such as two additional years for existing power plants to comply if they dewater and close their surface impoundments containing combustion residuals.

Most importantly, EPA would give existing power plants five additional years to comply if they eliminate discharges of all process wastewater, excluding cooling water discharges.

Jennifer Duggan, managing attorney for the Environmental Integrity Project, told BNA that environmental groups are pleased that EPA met the deadline to propose the rule, but noted that EPA has offered some weak options.

Duggan said power plants already are allowed to use best professional judgment to treat scrubber wastes, “but they don't do it.”

Moreover, she said there is no point in allowing impoundment of fly ash in coal ash ponds when EPA itself has said 80 percent of power plants use dry handing of fly ash.

Power Industry Digesting Rule

Power industry officials were still digesting what they termed “a large and complex” proposed rule that would impose significant financial and operational burdens on a coal-fired power industry that is in transition.

Scott Segal, partner at Bracewell and Giuliani and director of the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, told BNA April 22 that EPA has proposed “a very long and complicated” rule.

In a statement, Segal said, “The power sector has long worked to avoid, reduce and mitigate the relatively low volumes of effluents associated with the generation of electricity.”

The effluent limitation guidelines proposed by EPA “could add substantially to electricity costs, undermine economic recovery, and harm electric reliability if the ultimate rule is developed in an inflexible or unrealistic manner,” Segal said.

Cynthia Finley, regulatory affairs director at the National Association of Clean Water Agencies, told BNA April 22 the group planned to submit comments on the proposed pretreatment standards for wastewater utilities.

EPA will hold a public hearing on the proposed pretreatment standards at 1 p.m. July 9 in the EPA East Building, Room 1153, at 1201 Constitution Ave. N.W. Washington, D.C.

The agency said it will accept comments, identified by Docket No. EPA-HQ-OW-2009-0819, at for 60 days after the proposed rule is published in the Federal Register.