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The US EPA rolls back requirements to limit pollutants in wastewater from coal plants

  • The US EPA rolls back requirements to limit pollutants in wastewater from coal plants

Earlier this week the US Environment Protection Agency finalised a rule that revises the Obama-era regulations for coal power plants to reduce the pollutants discharged in the plants’ wastewater, informs Phys.org. As a result, it will be possible to use cheaper technologies, and plants will have more time to comply with guidelines that are not as strict as the original ones dating from 2015.

Coal plants use flue gas desulfurization (FGD) systems, commonly known as scrubbers, to remove mercury, sulphur dioxide and other pollutants from smokestacks, which are then discharged in the wastewater to water bodies. The 2015 rule set federal limits on the levels of pollutants in wastewater that could be discharged from power plants, based on technology improvements in the steam electric power industry over the previous three decades. It estimated a reduction in pollutant discharge of 1.4 billion pounds per year.

The newly finalised rule, which is expected to save the coal industry some $140 million per year, is part of a series of rollbacks on pollution regulations affecting coal power generation by Trump’s administration, in an attempt to halt its decline. It affects two streams of wastewater from coal plants: water used to clean scrubbers and water used to wash bottom ash from the plants’ furnaces.

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler has said in a statement: “Newer, more affordable pollution control technologies and flexibility on the regulation’s phase-in will reduce pollution and save jobs at the same time.” 

However, environmental groups say the move will allow the release of hundreds of thousands of pounds of pollutants into water bodies every year. The new rule also allows an exception for the plant in Cumberland City, Tennessee, which discharges up to one-sixth of the wastewater in the US from cleaning coal plant flues.

Frank Holleman, attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, said: "We're using 21st century technology to remove air emissions, but if you don't take the pollution out of the water before returning it the waterways, you are defeating the purpose".

Meanwhile, the trade organisation America’s Power welcomed the new rule, saying the Obama era rule could led to the closing of coal plants necessary for a trustworthy power grid: "We support rules that protect the environment and human health, and we are optimistic the revised rule will not adversely affect the electricity grid".

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