New Report Details Toxic Water Pollution from Power Plants

The study presents evidence that EPA has been underestimating the public health benefits of controlling metals including arsenic and hexavalent chromium (which can increase the risk of cancer), as well as lead and mercury (which can cause brain damage) released by power plants into rivers, streams, and lakes.

Power plants discharge more than 5.5 billion pounds of pollutants into U.S. waterways every year, contributing to the contamination of more than 23,000 miles of rivers and 185 water bodies whose fish are too toxic to eat.

As the EPA weighs the nation’s first limits on toxic water pollution from power plants -- due in September -- a new report details the damage caused by the wastewater and the need for strong regulations to protect public health.

The report, “Selling Our Health Down the River,” presents evidence that EPA has been underestimating the public health benefits of controlling metals including arsenic and hexavalent chromium (which can increase the risk of cancer), as well as lead and mercury (which can cause brain damage) released by power plants into rivers, streams, and lakes.

While EPA has estimated that controlling these pollutants would provide $14 million to $20 million worth of health benefits per year, a more accurate assessment would likely far exceed $300 million annually, according to the report, which was written by Physicians for Social Responsibility, the Environmental Integrity Project, Sierra Club, Earthjustice and Clean Water Action.

"EPA has a historic opportunity to update Clean Water Act protections and to make sure our nation's drinking water systems and their consumers aren't bearing the burden and footing the bill to clean up coal plant water pollution," said Clean Water Action Water Programs Director Jennifer Peters. "EPA must put the prevention of contamination and public health protection  before the interests of an industry that has had a free pass to poison our nation's waters for decades."

The current wastewater pollution guidelines for power plants have not been updated since 1982 and do not restrict discharges of heavy metals, despite the fact that the electric power industry is responsible for the majority of toxic water pollution from industrial sources. 

 “For more than 30 years, power plants have dumped toxic chemicals into our waters, even though there are laws on the books that require the industry to clean up its act,” said Thom Cmar, Earthjustice’s lead attorney on this issue.  “This report shows the EPA the enormous benefits of finally righting this wrong, and why cleaning-up the nation’s biggest water polluters is a no-brainer.”

The proposed rule, formally the Effluent Limitations Guidelines for the Steam Electric industry, or “ELG,” contains a menu of options that the agency is considering.  The authors of the report urge the EPA to choose the strongest possible protections against water toxics from power plants, which are outlined in the agency’s proposal as options 4 and 5. Both would eliminate almost all heavy metal water pollution from the industry. 

“Strong clean water laws are about a child’s right to grow up healthy and holding polluters accountable for decades of toxic dumping,” said Casey Roberts, an author of the report and staff attorney at the Sierra Club. “As things stand today, thousands of lives are unnecessarily put at risk due to outdated policies and irresponsible polluters. In September, EPA has a chance to change that for the better.” 

"Coal-burning power plants are pouring poisonous heavy metals into our waterways. These toxic substances – like mercury, lead and arsenic – are putting at risk the health of our children and the developing brains of our babies", said Barbara Gottlieb, Director of Environment and Health at Physicians for Social Responsibility. "We need robust, effective protection from the EPA to get this dangerous pollution under control."

The benefits to public health, downstream communities, and the economy justify the largest possible reduction of toxic discharges.  Unfortunately EPA's analysis only estimated the economic value of three specific human health benefits.  EPA disregarded the positive impact of, among other things, safer drinking water and fish that are safer to eat in waterways downstream from power plants.   When the full range of benefits is taken into account, the strongest possible regulations are justified. 

 “Americans will be much healthier because of this rule, and that has a huge economic benefit," said Abel Russ, the lead author of the report and Attorney at Environmental Integrity Project. “If you add it all up, looking at the human health benefits alone, the rule will generate hundreds of millions of dollars in economic value each year.”  

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