EPA’s Action to Delay Protections Means Dire Local Impacts & Is Illegal
Waterkeepers Chesapeake strongly oppose EPA’s proposal to delay compliance deadlines for the Steam Electric Effluent Limitations and Guidelines (ELG), which became final in November 2015 and went into effect at the beginning of 2016. EPA should immediately reinstate all compliance deadlines for the 2015 ELG rule. EPA should also notify state permitting authorities and power plant utilities that the ELG rule is in effect and must be implemented according to the compliance deadlines outlined in the 2015 rule, which already allow utilities plenty of time to come into compliance.
“By allowing toxic pollutants from power plants, such as toxic metals, arsenic, selenium, and lead, into our waterways there will be a tremendous impact on our entire region. Our waterways, communities and children will be irreversibly harmed if EPA delays the compliance deadlines of the ELG rule,” said Betsy Nicholas, Executive Director, Waterkeepers Chesapeake.
Prior to being finalized in 2015 these standards had not been updated since 1982, despite the fact that coal-burning power plants and other steam electric power plants are THE largest toxic water polluters in the country, responsible for approximately 30% of all toxic pollution dumped into surface waters by industries regulated under the Clean Water Act. The 1982 rules didn’t place limits on toxic pollutants in power plant discharges. Delaying the new toxic water pollution protections sets us back three and a half decades.
The Delay Has Dire Local Impacts
In June, the Trump administration proposed delaying the compliance dates, explaining they would be postponed until the EPA “completes reconsideration of the 2015 rule,” a rule that took years to draft, with several opportunities for public review and input. After the short 30-day comment period ended, the EPA held one public hearing on July 31st in Washington, DC, only after environmental groups demanded it. Phillip Musegaas from Potomac Riverkeeper Network, Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper Angela Haren, Gunpowder Riverkeeper Theaux LeGardeur and Betsy Nicholas gave testimony highlighting how since the EPA proposed the delay in complying with the guidelines, some states and utilities have pulled back on preparing to limit the amount of toxins in their wastewater. Utilities that were planning to clean up polluting facilities are now putting those plans on hold while they wait to see the fate of the rule.
Dominion Energy Virginia’s Chesterfield Power Station, located on the James River near Richmond, adjoins the Dutch Gap Conservation Area, a popular site for fishing, swimming, hiking, and other recreational activities. Wastewater from the coal ash ponds and other waste streams at Chesterfield discharge into Farrar Gut, part of the conservation area. The state permitting agency relied on the ELG Rule in its decision to reissue the Chesterfield VPDES permit, and significant resources have already been expended at Chesterfield to ensure compliance with the ELG Rule within the prescribed deadline. The feasibility of compliance is already well established at Chesterfield and any further delay in enforcing the ELG Rule’s provisions, including any weakening of the standards themselves, would be harmful to the public and to the environment surrounding the plant.
In Maryland, NRG’s Dickerson and Morgantown coal power plants on the Potomac River and Chalk Point on the Patuxent River are under a federal court settlement which requires these plants to comply with the new ELG limits on mercury, arsenic and selenium. Once EPA stayed the deadlines for these limits, Maryland regulators quickly walked back their commitment and will not require new limits on these toxic metals until a new rule or deadlines are set. Despite the state’s clear authority to set protective limits on these metals regardless of EPA’s stance, Maryland is cowing to industry pressure and blaming EPA for its failure to protect the Potomac and Patuxent and millions of people who depend on these rivers for clean drinking water. This is what happens when EPA removes the “floor” of environmental protection - states are unwilling to take up the fight in the absence of EPA leadership.
Along the Patuxent River, communities are faced with severe environmental justice issues due to coal waste and coal by-products. In Waugh Chapel near Crofton, MD, residents have been drinking bottled water for years because Constellation Energy and its contractors poisoned their well water and then the coal pit was “capped” with a commercial shopping center, which of course gave a fresh profit windfall to the folks responsible for that toxic mess. Further south, is Chalk Point power plant operated by NRG where in 2000 the plant flooded thousands of gallons of bunker fuel oil into the river, which was blown by hurricane force winds downriver, essentially killing what remained of one of the most productive shellfish areas in the state. Today Chalk Point’s coal ash goes into nearby rural Brandywine where the company’s discharge reports indicate they have managed to contaminate the groundwater at fifty times the Federal drinking water standard for cadmium, arsenic and selenium with its coal byproducts also leaching into nearby Mattaponi Creek---a significant sub-tributary of the Patuxent River. Moreover, the Brandywine coal waste site has rarely been in legal compliance over the past two decades with the waste haphazardly piled up in mounds. The dust from those mounds of coal dust blowing on windy days in great black/gray clouds into the surrounding neighborhood where researchers claim that you can likely find coal dust in the vacuum cleaner bags located in people’s homes. The legacy of coal waste in the Patuxent watershed is so egregious it will take several lifetimes to clean up the mess with an unknown toll of human health.
In the Baltimore area, the C.P. Crane power plant (now owned by Middle River Power) continues to request leniency regarding wastewater and stormwater discharge limits, while parts of the Middle River continue to experience large fish kills from contaminated sediment.
The upper Gunpowder River has a nationally recognized population of wild trout, and provides drinking water for 1.8 million people in the Baltimore metro area. The lower River has fish consumption advisories and various impairments including PCB’s and heavy metals as it empties into the imperiled Chesapeake Bay. The current ELG rule provides certainty that meaningful reductions in toxic and bioaccumulative pollutants will be implemented and would greatly benefit Maryland residents that work, live and recreate by crabbing, fishing and swimming in these waters.
These are just a few examples of the egregious harm toxic pollution from coal-fired power plants have caused in our region. A delay in complying with the 2015 ELG Rule will mean lasting harm to people’s health and a loss of jobs.
The Delay is Illegal
Waterkeeper Alliance President Robert F. Kennedy Jr. countered the utilities’ claims that making these investments would cause harm, comparing the harm to industry profits to the lasting developmental harm that mercury has on children. He also questioned the basis for EPA’s hearing, stating: “This hearing is illegal. I know the Clean Water Act and Administrative Procedure Act backwards and forwards. Nothing in there gives you authority to suspend a rule. There has already been a rulemaking that gave us the limits that EPA is now trying to destroy.”
EPA lacks authority under both the Clean Water Act and the Administrative Procedures Act to postpone these compliance deadlines. As a federal administrative agency EPA only has the authority granted by Congress through statutes.
The Clean Water Act also prohibits compliance dates beyond three years following the issuance of new ELG standards. The intent of the Clean Water Act is to require more stringent discharge limits on pollutants over time to reflect advances in pollution control technologies. Indefinitely delaying compliance standards that have already been issued clearly contradicts this intent.
EPA’s proposal to delay compliance deadlines is based solely on costs the power plant industry will allegedly incur in order to comply with these new standards, and completely ignores the public health, environmental, and economic benefits of reducing water pollution from power plants.
EPA is expected to finalize their decision on delaying the requirements of the ELG rule in August. Waterkeeper Alliance joined several other national and regional groups who filed a lawsuit to challenge EPA in court if it continues this process of rolling back crucial water protections.