EPA proposes ‘strongest ever’ standards for keeping coal plant pollution out of U.S. waterways

“The coal industry has benefited from lax pollution controls for decades, and we are pleased that the EPA is finally requiring the industry to stop dumping toxic pollutants into our waterways.”


When wastewater from coal-fired plants is released into wider waterways, it can have serious consequences. Environmental toxins including mercury, arsenic, bromide and chloride can pollute drinking water and aquatic habitats, causing cancer and other ailments in humans and making it harder for wildlife to reproduce.

That’s why the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) moved on Wednesday to propose the country’s toughest standards yet for controlling this type of pollution.

“Ensuring the health and safety of all people is EPA’s top priority, and this proposed rule represents an ambitious step toward protecting communities from harmful pollution while providing greater certainty for industry,” EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan said in a press release. “EPA’s proposed science-based limits will reduce water contamination from coal-fired power plants and help deliver clean air, clean water, and healthy land for all.”

Regan further told the press that the proposed standards were the “strongest ever,” as E&E News reported.

The proposed rule targets three types of water discharges from coal plants, according to the EPA website:

  1. Flue gas desulfurization wastewater, which is wastewater generated from the “scrubbers” used to reduce plant air pollution
  2. Bottom ash transport water, which comes from plant waste ash.
  3. Combustion residual leachate, which is the water that seeps out from coal ash landfills.

These wastewaters can also include the pollutants selenium, nickel, iodide, excess nutrients and total dissolved solids. As a class, pollutants from coal plants can also cause cognitive impairment in young children and deformities in animals. They can persist in the environment for several years. 

The rule would set zero-discharge standards for both flue gas and bottom ash wastewater, which are the two largest sources of coal plant wastewater, the Environmental Integrity Project told EcoWatch in an email. The newly proposed rule also creates new definitions for wastewaters that may still exist near a plant before stronger regulations came into effect, according to the EPA. All told, the EPA estimates that it will prevent around 584 million pounds of coal-plant water pollution from entering the environment each year.

Currently, the coal power industry is largely operating based on regulations from the 1980s, the Environmental Integrity Project said. Attempts to update the rules have been subject to a political tug-of-war, with the Obama administration proposing tougher standards in 2015 that the Trump administration rolled back in 2020. 

The Biden administration has largely returned to the Obama-era rules, but changed the compliance date from 2023 or 2025 to 2029. Overall, the administration estimates that between 69 and 93 plants will need to spend extra money to follow the tougher regulations. The EPA said one plant would likely have to close because of the tougher rule, as CNN reported, but it did not say which.

“The coal industry has benefited from lax pollution controls for decades, and we are pleased that the EPA is finally requiring the industry to stop dumping toxic pollutants into our waterways,” Environmental Integrity Project senior attorney Abel Russ said in a statement emailed to EcoWatch. “This is all required by law and should have happened years ago. The goal of the Clean Water Act is to eliminate water pollution. When the industry has access to technology capable of eliminating pollution, EPA must require the use of that technology.”

The rule will now be open to public comment for 60 days, with a final rule expected in 2024, The Hill reported. Public hearings will be held on April 20 and 25, the EPA said.


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