Coal ash might have to be handled differently by power companies under a proposed new rule by the federal Environmental Protection Agency. That could end the common practice of power companies dumping ash into massive ponds like the controversial one at Georgia Powers Plant Scherer north of Macon.
Under a court order to update its 30-year-old rules about wastewater from power plants, the EPA released its proposal for public comment late Friday night.
It includes four options. They vary from focusing only on the ash emerging from smokestacks to putting specific limits on the amount of heavy metals and toxins in wastewater from boilers, scrubbers and ash that doesnt leave through the smokestack. Under some options, the limits would apply only to the very largest power plants.
Georgia Power spokesman Mark Williams said the company is still reviewing the proposal and will eventually provide comments to the EPA on the impacts and benefits of the different options.
Environmental groups said this week that the more restrictive options would be a good start to addressing the nations coal ash problems.
I think were in a good position to get the strongest rule possible, said Ulla Reeves, a program director for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. I dont think these options cover everything we were hoping for, but we have something to work with.
Current rules require plants to use certain technology (now three decades old) but do not set specific limits on releases of toxic metals such as arsenic, mercury, lead, chromium, and selenium into water.
For the first time, the new safeguards will set limits to the amount of toxic chemicals Georgia Power is allowed to dump in our waterways, and would require the company to monitor and publicly report what they are putting into our water, Seth Gunning, with the Sierra Club, said in an email.
Limiting the amount of toxics in our water will save lives.
The new rules proposed by EPA would apply to power plants that burn fuel such as coal to vaporize water. That steam runs generators that create electricity. Water is also circulated around plant equipment to cool it.
When the water from these processes is put back into lakes and rivers afterward, pollutants that have built up in it can harm living things.
Coal ash ponds
At Plant Scherer, more than 1,000 pounds of toxic coal ash from the plant is put into a 750-acre, unlined pond every day. The pond at the Georgia Power plant is one of a handful in the U.S. receiving the highest amount of heavy metals along with ash, according to the federal Toxic Release Inventory.
The pond has been a source of concern among its Juliette neighbors, some of whom have dangerous levels of uranium contamination in their well water. Tests so far have not demonstrated a link between the plant and that pollution. But some residents, citing the coal ash pond as the source, have filed lawsuits against the plants owners.
The EPA states that steam plants contribute more than half the toxic pollutants released into lakes, streams and rivers by industry in the United States. The nations 500 coal-burning units are the primary source of these pollutants.
According to EPA, the rule needs updating partly because plants have been required to add new air pollution controls over the years, in some cases removing pollutants from air emissions by shifting them into wastewater with technology such as scrubbers.
At Plant Scherer, adding bag houses slashed the plants airborne mercury pollution 80 percent, Williams said in an email. The plant is also in the middle of adding scrubbers to reduce sulfur dioxide and other technology to reduce nitrogen oxide emissions.
Georgia Power has demonstrated its long-standing commitment to manage water resources responsibly and develop technology solutions that help us provide clean, safe, reliable and affordable power, Williams said in an email.
The EPA indicated it will try to dovetail the proposed wastewater regulations with a separate coal ash rule proposed in 2010.
The issue of pollution leaking from coal ash ponds will not be addressed until that coal ash rule is finalized, said Abigail Dillen, coal program director and attorney at Earthjustice.
EPA is still not dealing with this legacy pollution problem, Dillen said. Were not going to get a handle on this unless we get effective monitoring of the existing ponds and effective cleanup requirements if contamination is found.
The EPA has not indicated when it will finalize the coal ash rule. We have heard theres no hope of a coal rule until 2014 for political reasons, Reeves said.
To contact writer S. Heather Duncan, call 744-4225.