EPA Requiring Suite of Controls for Power Plant Discharges

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By Amena H. Saiyid

Sept. 30 — Operators of an estimated 1,080 coal, gas and nuclear power plants and any other new plants that come online will be required to use a mix of controls to minimize discharges of zinc, selenium, arsenic, mercury and other toxic pollutants under a final rule released Sept. 30 by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Starting in Jan. 1, 2018, existing power plants will be required to use a suite of technologies that involve dry handling offly ash and bottom ash and chemical precipitation and biological treatment of wastewater discharged from air pollution control equipment. These include scrubbers for sulfur oxides and technologies that control mercury, oxides of nitrogen and particulates.

At new power plants, the EPA will require dry handling of fly ash and bottom ash similar to that for existing plants, with more stringent limits for flue gas scrubbers containing arsenic, selenium, mercury and total dissolved solids. The newplants also will be subject to new limits on arsenic and mercury for coal combustion leachate.

Signed Sept. 30 by EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, the new effluent limits in the final rule (RIN 2040-AF14), which takes effect 60 days after publication, won't apply to plants that are oil-fired or smaller than 50 megawatts. Those plants will be required to comply with existing numeric limits under best practicable available technology that is commercially available, according to the rule.

The EPA said the rule will modify 40 CFR Part 423.

The rule establishes new or additional controls to regulate wastewater discharges associated with the following processes and by-products: 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.

Suite of Readily Available Equipment

With the advances in air pollution control technologies, the EPA has found a suite of readily available equipment thatpower plants can install cost effectively.

Steam electric power plant discharges occur in proximity to nearly 100 public drinking water intakes and more than 1,500 public wells across the nation, the EPA said.

About 23,600 miles of rivers and streams are “damaged” by power plant discharges that include arsenic, mercury, lead, boron, cadmium, selenium, chromium, nickel, thallium, vanadium, zinc, nitrogen, chlorides, bromides, iron, copper and aluminum. Moreover, such power plants are responsible for 30 percent of all permitted industrial discharges of toxic pollutants that enter streams, lakes and rivers, Ken Kopocis, EPA deputy assistant administrator for water, told reporters during a Sept. 30 teleconference on the rule.

Upon implementation of the rule, the EPA estimates annual reductions in 1.4 billion pounds of toxic pollutants and withdrawals of about 57 billion gallons of water.

Technology-based Limits

Effluent limits for power plant discharges of toxic pollutants are based on the best available technology that is economically achievable as well as best practicable technology that is commercially available. Once effective, the effluent limits are incorporated into National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permits issued to power plants.

The EPA hasn't updated the effluent limits for power plants since 1982. The agency agreed to update the rules following a March 2012 settlement agreement with the environmental groups led by the Defenders of Wildlife (Defenders ofWildlife v. Jackson, D.D.C., No. 1:10-cv-01915, 2012; 44 ER 743, 3/15/13)28 TXLR 310, 3/14/13)2013 WLPM, 3/13/13)46 National Environment Daily, 3/8/13)46 DEN A-3, 3/8/13)46 DER A-28, 3/8/13).

American Electric Power, Dominion Resources and Duke Energy are among the power companies that will be affected by this rule. The EPA said estimated annual compliance costs for the final rule are $480 million, while annual benefits are estimated at $463 million.

New Requirements

Specifically, the final rule among its various options will require:

• new effluent limits for arsenic, mercury, selenium, and nitrogen for wastewater discharged from wet scrubber systems;

• zero discharge of pollutants in ash transport water that must be incorporated into the plants’ discharge permits;

• zero discharge pollutant limits for flue gas mercury control wastewater; and

• stringent limits on arsenic, mercury, selenium and total dissolved solids in coal gasification wastewater, based on evaporation technology

.

Not affected by the rule is legacy wastewater generated prior to Jan. 1, 2018. The rule defines legacy wastewater as that which is involved in the transport of fly ash and bottom ash. It also includes wastewater generated by scrubbers, mercurycontrols and coal gasification processes

Mixed Response

The rule's release elicited a mixed response from the environmental groups that pushed hard for this rule and the powerindustry that sought greater flexibility.

From the industry side, Quin Shea, Edison Electric Institute's vice president for environment, said the institute's investor-owned utility members were still evaluating the complex rulemaking but noted, “The rule sets strict technology-based effluent limitations that will force technological and operational changes at existing facilities.”

At the same time, Shea said, “We also recommended that EPA provide reasonable compliance schedules for the ELGs that are aligned with the compliance timelines for other rulemakings, such as the recently finalized Clean Power Plan, and it appears that EPA has done so.”

The National Rural Electric Cooperative Association described the rule as “another blow” to rural power.

The association said in a Sept. 30 statement that it asked the EPA to re-consider the cost-effectiveness of the rule on small entities.

‘Best Professional Judgment' Limits

“Smaller power plants like those operated by co-ops should have been able to negotiate cost-effective ‘best professional judgment' limits with their respective state permit writers,” the group said, referring to the option that the EPA had floated in the proposed rule but rejected in the final rule.

NRECA, however, didn't respond when asked about their reaction to the EPA's decision to exclude effluent limits forpower plants with generating capacity of less than 50 megawatts and oil-fired power plants.

The Environmental Integrity Project, the Waterkeeper Alliance and the Sierra Club expressed relief that the rule was finally updated and required dry handling of fly ash and bottom ash, a provision they had sought from the agency.

“It's strong because what the EPA did was address the largest part of the waste stream, reducing the majority of toxicity associated with pollutants found in fly ash and bottom ash,” Abel Russ, an Environmental Integrity Project attorney, told Bloomberg BNA Sept. 30. “They did that by requiring dry handling of fly ash and bottom ash, and that. in itself, will completely eliminate the pollution associated with these wastes.”

However, Russ said he wished the EPA had done some things differently, such as requiring compliance in three years by 2018 instead of 2023. “That seems too long,” he said.

Utilities Using Evaporation

Russ also was concerned that power plants that choose the more stringent process of evaporation to handle scrubber wastewater have until 2023 to comply with the effluent limits. “What will prevent a utility from waiting until nearly 2023 and changing its mind about using biological treatment and chemical precipitation to treat those wastes?” Russ said.

He also said that the EPA raised the average as well as maximum allowable discharge limits for arsenic, mercury, selenium and nitrate in the waste stream arising from flue gas desulfurization units.

Russ as well as Waterkeeper Alliance attorney Pete Morrison rued the EPA's decision to exclude legacy wastewater from the new rule.

“While the rule still fails to address waste leaking from old, inactive coal ash ponds, it will steer the industry away from the all-too-common practice of piping ash slurry into huge, unlined waste pits next to our rivers and lakes. That’s a big stepforward,” Morrison said in a statement.