Cleaning Up Coal Plants in Texas

In a draft EPA ruling, coal-fired power plants in Texas would be required to use specific methods that could help the plants significantly reduce toxic water pollution.

In a recent report by a coalition of environmental and clean water groups, the critical need to clean up power plant water pollution is addressed.  In the absence of any effective pollution limit, coal plants have become by far the largest source of toxic water pollution in the country, based on toxicity.

Some key finding of the report were: of the 274 coal plants that discharge coal ash and scrubber wastewater into waterways, nearly 70 percent (188) have no limits on the toxics most commonly found in these discharges (arsenic, boron, cadmium, lead, mercury, and selenium) that are dumped directly into rivers, lakes, streams and bays; of these 274 coal plants, more than one-third have no requirements to monitor or report discharges of these toxic metals to government agencies or the public.

Based on available water permits, the groups surveyed 386 coal plants across the country and identified 274 coal plants that discharge either coal ash or scrubber wastewater. The report reviewed the extent to which the permits limit - or require monitoring of - the discharge of arsenic, boron, cadmium, lead, mercury, and selenium; the expiration date of the permits; and the health of the receiving stream.

The troubling results of the groups’ investigation are due in large part to the lack of any binding federal standards limiting toxic pollution from coal plants. Existing standards that apply to coal plant wastewater were established in 1982 and do not cover most of the worst pollutants. The EPA has repeatedly acknowledged that existing guidelines have not kept pace with developments in the industry.

The groups also reviewed a red-line copy of the EPA’s proposed coal plant water pollution standards that were sent to the White House’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) before the standards were released. The red-line copy shows that OMB caved to industry pressure and took the highly unusual and improper step of writing new, weaker options into the draft rule prepared by the EPA’s expert staff.

According to the EPA, more than half of all toxic water pollution in the country comes from power plants, making coal-fired power plants the number one source of toxic water pollution in the U.S. The human health impacts from this pollution are serious. The EPA estimates that nearly 140,000 people per year experience increased cancer risk due to arsenic in fish from coal plants, nearly 13,000 children under the age of seven each year have reduced IQs because of lead in fish they eat, and almost 2,000 children are born with lower IQs because of mercury in fish their mothers have eaten.

"Allowing coal polluters to fill our rivers and lakes with this witches brew of toxic chemicals threatens public health and diminishes quality of life for Americans," said Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., President of Waterkeeper Alliance. "The Clean Water Act is one of our nation's greatest achievements, but 40 years after this critical legislation was passed, the coal industry is still polluting with impunity, thanks to a loophole no other industry has enjoyed."

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