On March 8th, 2023, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced their proposal of stricter water regulations under the Clean Water Act. This Act's primary goal is to reduce discharges of toxic metal and other pollutants from coal-fired power plants into lakes, streams, and other water bodies. EPA administrator Michael S. Regan stated, “[e]nsuring the health and safety of all people is EPA's top priority, and this proposed rule represents an ambitious step toward protecting communities from harmful pollution while providing greater certainty for industry.”
Additionally, on March 13th, 2023, the EPA announced their proposal of the National Primary Drinking Water Regulation (NPDWR) to monitor and limit six PFAs, a chemical sometimes described as “forever chemicals.” The proposed rule would set new standards to establish legally enforceable levels of PFAS in drinking water.
Why are the new standards important?
The new standards limiting PFAs would be the first-ever national standard regulating chemicals of this kind. Given that PFAs have also been found at the sites of power plants, these new regulations may cause power plants to implement new practices in conformity with EPA standards.
This article will explain the new regulations, outline some of the EPA's regulatory history, and explore the new standards' consequences on power plants.
Pollutants from Coal-fired Power Plants
Coal-fired power plants discharge large volumes of wastewater into waterways, including ponds, lakes, rivers, and streams. According to the EPA, the discharges include pollutants such as:
- Nutrient pollution
- Total dissolved solids.
These pollutants may contaminate drinking water, and exposure to the chemicals could damage humans and the natural ecosystem. The proposed rule, however, targets three types of wastewater discharged from power plants:
- Flue gas desulfurization wastewater
- Bottom ash transport water
- Combustion residual leachate.
The EPA estimates that by implementing stricter wastewater standards, the proposed rule would reduce the pollutants discharged through wastewater by 584 million pounds per year.
In 2015 the EPA published a rule revising the Effluent Limitations Guidelines (ELGs), national industry-specific wastewater regulations based on the performance of wastewater treatment technologies. The 2015 revisions set the first federal limits on toxic metals in wastewater generated from power plants in the Steam Electric Power Generating category.
According to the EPA, steam electric plants generate steam by using fossil fuels, such as coal, oil, natural gas, and/or nuclear reactions, to heat water in boilers. The steam is then used to move the turbines connected to the electric generators.
The plants generate wastewater as chemical pollutants and thermal pollution from:
- Water treatment
- Power cycle
- Ash handling
- Air pollution control systems
- Coal piles
- Yard and floor drainage, and
- Other miscellaneous wastes.
The rule was projected to reduce the number of toxic metals, nutrients, and other pollutants by 1.4 billion pounds and to reduce water withdrawal by 57 billion gallons.
Executive Order 13990
On January 20th, 2021, President Biden issued Executive Order 13990, “Protecting Public Health and the Environment and Restoring Science to Tackle the Climate Crisis,” which made it the goal of the Biden Administration to protect the environment, ensure access to clean air and water, and to listen to the science surrounding climate change.
Moreover, the Executive Order directed all agencies, including the EPA, to review all policies and regulations the Trump administration undertook and to rescind or revise any of those regulations that did not promote public health and the environment.
As a result, the EPA rescinded rules such as the “Benefit-Cost Rule," which imposed broad procedural restrictions on when and how the Agency needed to provide cost-benefit analyses for Clean Air Act rulemakings. The rule has made promoting clean air regulation a difficult task with little explanation for its purpose.
EPA's Review of the 2020 Steam Electric Reconsideration Rule
On August 31st, 2020, the EPA revised the requirements Steam Electric rule reconsidering the Effluent Guidelines and limiting the guidelines to flue gas desulfurization wastewater and bottom ash wastewater, a major rollback from the 2015 rule. After Executive Order 13990, the EPA was given the go-ahead by the Biden administration to revamp the rules and to impose more stringent requirements. Therefore, the new law returns to a standard closer to the 2015 rule.
The Effect on Coal-fired Power Plants
The cost of complying with the new regulations may be millions of dollars, and many operators of coal-fired power plants may seek to avoid paying these high compliance costs. However, a parallel EPA proposal may allow the coal plants to avoid or belay compliance by instead opting to stop burning coal completely by 2028.
This grants coal-fired power plants a few options, either adhere to the new and strict regulations on wastewater discharge or stop burning coal. According to the International Energy Agency, many energy producers are already moving away from coal and towards more environmentally friendly alternatives. This rule by the Biden administration could facilitate the shift from fossil fuels to climate-friendly alternatives.
PFAs and Power Plants
The March 13th water regulations less directly impact power plants; however, they may be worth considering. PFAs are chemicals generated by consumer, commercial, and industrial products. Additionally, some power plants may generate the chemicals and be subject to the water regulations that the EPA intends to set.
The Department of Energy (DOE) recently began to assess these chemicals in power plants and has provided its strategic roadmap and plans to address the problem. The DOE has tested water at over a dozen power plants to monitor the levels of PFAs and determine their threat.
In 2021, the Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy discovered large amounts of PFAs at the site of the Sims power plant in Grand Haven, Michigan. Though the PFAs did not seem to pose an immediate threat at the time of discovery, a remediation plan was initiated. Now in 2023, the EPA has set its sights on the continued oversight of the dangerous "forever chemicals."
What are PFAs?
According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAs) are manufactured chemicals that have been used in consumer products since the 1940s.
Products that may use PFAs include:
- Non-stick cookware
- Water repellant clothing
- Stain-resistant fabrics and carpets
- Some cosmetics
- Some firefighting foams
- Products that resist grease, water, and oils.
The most commonly studied PFAs are perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorobutane sulfonic acid (PFOS), both of which are included in the new water standards. PFAs, most of which do not break down, are released into the soil, water, and air during the production of these goods.
The EPA and ATSDR acknowledge that PFAs in the environment may be linked to harmful effects on humans and animals. Recent studies estimate that over 98% of people have some amount of PFAs in their blood.
ATSDR suggests that PFAs may lead to:
- Increased cholesterol levels
- Changes in liver enzymes
- Small decreases in infant birth weight
- Decreased vaccine response in children
- Increased risk of high blood pressure
- Pre-eclampsia in pregnant women
- Increased risk of kidney and testicular cancer.
However, there is still a lot of research to be done to determine just how harmful PFAs are and how much people have been exposed to these "forever chemicals."
Under the National Primary Drinking Water Regulation (NPDWR), the EPA would establish legally enforceable levels, called Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCLs), for six PFAs in drinking water. PFOA and PFOs, two of the highest occurring PFAs, would be limited to 4 parts per trillion gallons of water.
The NPDWR would require water agencies nationwide to monitor their PFA levels, notify the public of the levels, and reduce the number of PFAs in drinking water if they exceed the amount in the proposed standards.
According to EPA Administrator Regan, the EPA's proposal to create a national standard for PFAS in drinking water would help states have the guidance needed to make decisions to protect their communities best. Regan believes this policy could potentially prevent tens of thousands of PFAS-related illnesses.
Though power plants are not the primary producer of PFA chemicals, if they are found, like in Grand Haven, Michigan, to be a large contributor or contaminant of local drinking water, it may cause states to bring action against them to limit their contamination and waste.
Altogether, the Environmental Protection Agency is taking large steps to combat water pollution in the United States. Power plants, especially those using coal, must be vigilant to stay current with the proposed rules. Compliance may be costly and lead to a shift away from burning fossil fuels. Pursuing a cleaner environment has been made a clear goal by the Biden Administration, so there may be more regulations in the future that may have a large impact on power plants.