Back in the 80s, the Environmental Protection Agency began requiring power companies to install "scrubbers" in the smokestacks of their coal fired plants to capture pollutants before they got into the air. And that did a reasonable job of cleaning up the air we breathe.
But it damaged the water we drink because all that lead and arsenic and selenium trapped in the smokestacks had to go somewhere. It went, unregulated, into thousands of miles of rivers and streams, making power plants the worst water polluters in the nation.
So, Wednesday EPA issued new rules that would require coal fired power plants in Maryland and throughout the rest of the nation to sharply reduce the amount of toxins in the wastewater that flows from their plants.
Ken Kopocis, EPA’s deputy assistant administrator for water, said in a conference call the rules would remove some 1.4 billion pounds of toxins annually from 23,000 miles of rivers and streams nationally. And he argued that the rules wouldn’t be much of an imposition on power generators because they are "based on readily available technologies that many in the industry already use today while producing affordable power."
But Alex Bond, the manager of air quality and climate programs at the Edison Electric Institute, which represents power plant owners, worried about the potential costs.
"There are going to be significant implementation challenges that could potentially create compliance issues and increase customer cost," he said.
Kopocis, however, said any cost increase should be pennies a month.
The rules would affect Maryland plants ranging from the 2,500 megawatt Chalk Point facility in southern Prince Georges County to the relatively tiny—416 megawats--C.P. Crane plant in Middle River.
NRG Energy, the Houston based firm that owns the Chalk Point plant as well as plants at Dickerson, in Montgomery County, and Morgantown, in Charles County, declined comment. Talen Energy, a Pennsylvania company that owns C.P. Crane, Brandon Shores and H.A. Wagner, both in Pasadena, failed to return repeated calls for comment.
The rule stems from lawsuits filed by environmental groups over the last six years.
Eric Schaefer, director of the Environmental Integrity Project, said his researchers first noticed a problem in Zekiah Swamp, near a Charles County power plant around 2008. Fly ash from the plant’s landfill was leaking arsenic, selenium, cadmium and other metals into the swamp, endangering aquatic life, as well as humans.
So, Environmental Integrity Project sued in 2009. Scheafer said they wanted EPA to set a deadline for the rules.
A few years later, Defenders of Wildlife and the Sierra Club teamed up with Earth Justice to file another suit.
Abigail Dillon, a vice president for litigation with Earth Justice, said EPA recognized the problem back in the 80s, but "at that point they were not persuaded they were any good wastewater treatment options that were affordable."
But times have changed, the technology has changed and Earth Justice filed its suit, essentially telling EPA, “you should have been imposing limits long ago,” Dillon said.
EPA agreed and after some back and forth in the courts and a lot of study issued the new rules Wednesday. The agency’s Kopocis said power companies would have until 2023 to comply.