Coal plants harm not just the air but also water bodies, according to environmentalists' report

09/23/13 Seán Kinane
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Tags: TECO pollution coal

A new report from six environmental organizations concludes that in addition to polluting the air, coal-fired power plants are a major source of water pollution in the United States.

"Coal fired power plants, which supply a lot of our electricity across the country, are the number one polluters of our rivers and streams. They are responsible for sixty percent of all the toxics that go into water and by that I mean arsenic, mercury, lead, and other heavy metals that we worry about having in drinking water. The really alarming thing that this report highlights is the fact that while coal fired power plants are the worst polluters in the country they are subject to some of the weakest standards. Currently there are currently no standards or limits on how much of this toxic pollution they can dump into our waterways every year. The Environmental Protection Agency is finally considering imposing first ever limits. What we are showing in this report is how important it is that the agency go ahead and do that."

Give us an idea of what types of pollution get into the waterways and how it happens from a coal fired power plant.

"Sure, well, in coal there are all sorts of naturally occurring things like mercury and arsenic that are okay when they're encapsulated in coal and not getting out into the environment but as soon as you burn it in a big power plant boiler you're left with coal ash. That ash leeches out all of those toxins when it gets into contact with water. The way that coal fired power plants often dispose of their ash is that they sluice it out of their boiler with a lot of water and they dump all that contaminated ash wastewater into big unlined pits. As coal fired power plants are finally installing air pollution controls, which is a great thing, it unfortunately has a new waste stream. All of the chemicals that used to go up out of the stack are now being captured in a wet slurry and that wastewater is also being dumped into these unlined ponds. So you have this contaminated water draining off into the nearest river, stream, or sometimes in Florida straight into the ocean. And you have these leaky unlined ponds leaking into the groundwater polluting the aquifer as well."

In your report you list fourteen of these coal fired power plants in Florida, four of them are in the greater Tampa Bay area. We have two in Polk, one in Citrus and then one in Hillsborough which is the Big Bend facility operated by Tampa Electric. Is there anything you can tell us about the pollution that comes out of those plants?

"Sure, those plants aren't any different than the situation I've been talking about. They're big plants, they generate a lot of waste every year, and they have very contaminated waste water. They do not have sufficient limits on their Clean Water Act permit to ensure that those contaminants aren't going into waterways. What's so important about this is that a big plant like Big Ben can afford to put on pollution controls that virtually eliminate this pollution. What the EPA has found in it's proposals for new standards is that we have, today, available affordable technologies. What you would see at most big industrial facilities; tank based treatment instead of these big unlined ponds that you can see all over in Florida, including around the Tampa area. What EPA found is that we can move away from the dangerous ponds, get tank based treatment at very affordable cost. Even if electric rate payers were going to pay the full cost of cleaning up these coal fired power plants it would be just pennies a day. Of course rate payers wouldn't pay for all of this, the utilities would as they should."

You've seen a copy of the EPA's proposed coal plant water pollution standards and you're mentioning that the Office of Management and Budget at the White House has caved to industry pressure and took the unusual step of writing new weaker options since the draft rule, what happened there?

"You're right, there was a very unusual and improper exercise of the White House's authority. The Office of Management and Budget is meant to just insure that the cost of regulations are being considered. They are not the experts on public health or pollution or how to control it. The people who are the experts are at the Environmental Protection Agency and they have come up with a menu of options with a preferred option for regulation that's quite strong and would eliminate nearly all of this dangerous pollution but when they sent their proposal over to OMB to just get checked the industry, the coal fired power industry met with the accountants at OMB and they took the very unusual step of rewriting EPA's rule and putting in very weak options and rejecting EPA's proposal as the preferred option. What EPA is now stuck with is a rule that has many proposals but which would be flatly illegal under the Clean Water Act and more importantly wouldn't protect public drinking water. What we're asking the public to do is let the White House know how important clean water is and that this kind of accommodation of the industry at the cost of public health is not acceptable and the EPA should go back to it's original preferred option and finalize meaningful safeguards."

The report is called Closing the Floodgates: How the Coal Industry is Poisoning Our Water and How We Can Stop It.

WMNF interviewed Abigail Dillen, is vice president of litigation for climate and energy at EarthJustice.

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