EPAThe American Public Health Association (APHA) says it supports standards proposed recently by the EPA that would set the first-ever federal limits on toxic pollutants in wastewater discharged from coal-fired power plants. The contaminants, including mercury, lead, arsenic and selenium, can present a range of serious and lasting health effects leading to cardiovascular disease and cancer; damaging the nervous system, kidneys and liver; lowering IQ; and more.

EPA last updated the effluent guidelines and standards for steam-electric power plants in 1982. Since that time, the development of new technologies for generating electric power have altered the nature of wastewater streams and corresponding control technologies.

New rules would be phased in

The proposed rule also contains new or additional requirements for discharges from wastewater streams related to flue-gas desulfurization, fly ash, bottom ash, combustion residual leachate, flue-gas mercury control, nonchemical metal cleaning wastes, and gasification of fuels such as coal and petroleum coke. The new requirements for existing power plants would be phased in between 2017 and 2022.

The rule would apply to nuclear, coal, oil and natural-gas-fired power plants with a capacity greater than or equal to 50 MW. The proposed regulations are anticipated to have the largest impact on coal-fired plants. There are approximately 1,200 steam-electric power plants in the U.S. that generate electricity using nuclear fuel or fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas, of which, according to EPA, approximately 500 are coal fired.

'No place on dinner plate' for toxic heavy metals

“We strongly support these proposed public health protections,” said Georges Benjamin, MD, APHA executive director. “Keeping our water safe and clean is critical to ensuring the health of our people and communities.”

The APHA says that when discharged from power plants, the toxics contaminate surrounding waterways. Human health is adversely affected when those pollutants are consumed through contaminated drinking water and fish, and when exposed in recreational waterways.

“Toxic heavy metals have no place in our drinking water or on our dinner plate,” said Benjamin. “We urge the EPA to adopt these standards and strengthen the human health protections provided under the Clean Water Act.”

In addition, EPA announced its intention to align the effluent guidelines and standards for coal-fired power plants with a related rule for coal-combustion residuals, which was proposed in 2010 under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. In particular, EPA is considering establishing best management practice (“BMP”) requirements that would apply to surface impoundments containing coal-combustion residuals. EPA is also considering establishing a voluntary program that would provide incentives for existing power plants to dewater and close surface impoundments containing combustion residuals, and for power plants to eliminate the discharge of all process wastewater, except cooling-water discharges.