EPA issues new rules on coal plant pollution

Enlarge / A truck loaded with coal is viewed at the Eagle Butte Coal Mine, which is operated by Alpha Coal, on Monday May 08, 2017, in Gillette, Wyoming. Matt McClain/The Washington Post via Getty Images

On Monday, the EPA issued updated rules on pollution limits that haven't been updated in over 30 years. The rules cover water pollution that results from burning coal for power, pollution that can place a variety of toxic metals into the nation's waterways. The 2020 regulations replace an Obama-era attempt to set more stringent rules to limit pollution, with the changes motivated in part by the EPA's decision to avoid having the added costs of control measures push any coal plants out of business.

From fossil fuels to water

Coal is the dirtiest form of electricity generation, with a lot of its problems caused by the release into the air of particulates, toxic metals like mercury, and harmful environmental chemicals like sulfates. But, somewhat ironically, controlling these pollutants creates its own set of problems. Many of processes that remove these chemicals from coal plant exhaust end up with some of the exhaust components dissolved in water.

In addition, the byproduct of coal production, the coal ash, is often cooled and moved out of the plant using water, producing even more contaminated material. The list of toxic materials in this water is extensive—arsenic, lead, mercury, selenium, chromium, and cadmium. These materials have a variety of health effects, and many can persist in the environment for decades or longer. The EPA has estimated that this contaminated water accounts for about 30 percent of all of the toxic pollutants releases in the United States.

This water is regulated, but those regulations date from the 1980s and thus are relatively lenient and don't necessarily reflect the technology currently in use. During the Obama administration, the EPA issued updated rules designed to reduce the release of polluted water significantly. While it would be expensive—with compliance estimated to be $480 million annually spread across the generating industry—the cost would be offset by public savings of a similar amount.

Naturally, companies reliant on coal-powered generation sued. The suit was ongoing when the Trump administration announced that it would revise the rules in 2017. Yesterday, the final regulations were released. While those will undoubtedly trigger lawsuits as well, they will remain in place until a future administration re-does the entire rule-making process.

Easing off

The new EPA regulations ease off in a variety of ways. The EPA has examined a variety of pollution technologies and decided a number of them are too expensive, even if they are more effective at removing these toxins. Utilities are also given more time to get their plants into compliance, and plants that are slated for closing by 2028 won't be expected to control these pollutants at all.

Under the 2015 rules, the EPA estimates that 108 power plants would have to pay some net costs for compliance. Under the new rules, that will drop to 75 plants, although some of the decrease is due to a combination of plant closures and conversion to burning natural gas. Overall, compared to the 2015 plan, the EPA says compliance with its new rules will cost $140 million less annually. If all those costs are passed on toRead More – Source