Final Action Imminent on Steam Electric Power Generation ELGs

For the past couple of years, the Environmental Protection Agency has been working on finalizing updates to the Effluent Limit Guidelines (ELG) for the steam electric power generating category. According to EPA's rulemaking schedule, the final action will be signed, sealed and delivered no later than September 30, 2015.

For the past couple of years, the Environmental Protection Agency has been working on finalizing updates to the Effluent Limit Guidelines (ELG) for the steam electric power generating category. According to EPA's rulemaking schedule, the final action will be signed, sealed and delivered no later than September 30, 2015.

A little background: Prior to this rulemaking action, the effluent guidelines for the steam electric power sector hadn't been revised since 1982. Under the Clean Water Act, EPA is required to publish a final Effluent Guidelines Program Plan every two years. The plan simply sets up a schedule for the review (and, if deemed necessary, revision) of published effluent rules for industrial water discharges across a number of categories (one of which is steam electric power generation). By 2010, environmental groups had grown tired of the stale, 30-year-old rules on the books for power, and sued EPA into action (Defenders of Wildlife v. EPA).

The environmental groups maintained that EPA had not fulfilled its duty to keep the effluent guidelines up to date with advances in power generation technologies and the advent of new waste streams.

After several delays, a proposed rule was finally released in June 2013 with the subsequent public comment period closing in September of that year. The two years since have been devoted to reviewing those comments and conducting necessary analyses.

According to EPA, steam electric power plants account for more than half of all toxic pollutants -- such as mercury, arsenic, lead, and selenium -- discharged into streams, rivers and lakes across the nation. The proposed rule identified four preferred options for regulating discharges. By the Agency's estimates, the proposed regulations would reduce pollutant discharges by 470 million to 2.62 billion pounds annually and reduce water use by 50 billion to 103 billion gallons per year.

The cost of implementing the new standards is estimated to be between $185 million and $954 million, but the Agency noted that, in the case of coal-fired power plants, many already have technology and procedures in place to comply with the proposed regulations. Fewer than half, it said, will incur any costs at all.

Depending on which options end up in the final rule, EPA said that between 66 and 200 of the roughly 1,100 power plants in the United States will be affected.

It probably won't surprise you to know that the proposed rule didn't seem to satisfy anyone. Environmental groups said it was too 'watered down' -- even going so far as to file a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the White House, claiming the Administration was withholding documents that would indicate it weakened EPA's proposal behind the scenes. And power groups described the rule as "large and complex," and believe the costs will far exceed EPA estimates.

And they both might be right. Based on its own independent research into flue gas desulfurization (FGD) wastewaters, the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) found "pollutant removal costs, using chemical precipitation, biological systems, and/or vapor-compression evaporation, are substantially higher than estimates in the proposed rule." EPRI also found that pollutant load reductions would be substantially lower than EPA suggests in its proposed ruling.

FGD is just one of several types of wastewater covered by the rule. If the other types follow a similar pattern, it could indeed be far costlier than anticipated with much less beneficial impact.

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