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EPA proposes new rules for toxic pollutants discharged from coal-fired power plants


EPA proposes new rules for toxic pollutants discharged from coal-fired power plants

Mar 13, 2023 | 3:00 pm ET
By Lisa Sorg
EPA proposes new rules for toxic pollutants discharged from coal-fired power plants
Coal ash excavation (Photo: Duke Energy)

The EPA has proposed new and stricter limits on toxic contaminants that utilities can discharge from their coal-fired power plants and coal ash landfills — but it’s still unclear how the rules would affect  Duke Energy’s facilities in North Carolina.

That’s because facilities that stop burning coal by 2028 and 2032 could comply with earlier, less stringent rules, enacted under the Obama and Trump administrations.

The EPA said this “flexible compliance pathway” would allow “early adopters” to avoid spending significant sums on upgrades when the plants will be retired soon, anyway.

EPA proposes new rules for toxic pollutants discharged from coal-fired power plants
Duke Energy’s remaining coal-fired electric plants: Rogers, west of Shelby; Allen, near Gastonia; Marshall, on Lake Norman; Belews Creek in Stokes County; and Roxboro and Mayo, both in Person County. (Map: Duke Energy)

Duke plans to retire four of its six remaining coal-fired power plants by the EPA deadlines, according to the Carbon Plan, approved late last year by the NC Utilities Commission:

  • Allen, Gaston County, 2024
  • Cliffside/Rogers, Cleveland/Rutherford counties, 2026
  • Mayo and Roxboro, Person County, 2029

However, if there is a delay in retiring those coal-fired plants, they could then be subject to the stricter discharge limits, effective the day after the scheduled closure date.

“This way, EPA would ensure that dischargers would not benefit from less stringent limitations based on closure by a certain date if that closure does not occur,” the rules read.

Later retirements include the Marshall plant in Catawba County (2033) and Belews Creek in Stokes county (2035-36) that could be subject to the new rules.

Erin Culbert, a Duke Energy spokeswoman, told Policy Watch via email that the utility has already implemented technology to help it meet the rule requirements. “Our comprehensive and proactive strategy of installing dry bottom ash handling systems and upgrading or adding entirely new wastewater systems has positioned us well for meeting this rule,” Culbert wrote.

Since 2015, Duke Energy has completed more than 40 wastewater projects and invested more than $870 million  in technology upgrades to comply and meet wastewater discharge limits, Culbert said. “We support provisions that recognize facilities that are in compliance with the 2015 and 2020 rules have significantly reduced the discharge of pollutants to receiving waters.”

Wastewater from coal-fired power plants contains toxic chemicals, including lead, mercury, chromium, selenium, arsenic, cadmium and bromides.

Bromides are important because when they enter the drinking water supply, they can interact with other chemicals at water treatment plants and produce “disinfection byproducts.” High levels of disinfection byproducts in drinking water have been linked to cancer.

Pollution from Duke Energy’s Belews Creek power plant resulted in levels of this harmful pollution far above standards in downstream drinking water systems for the towns of Eden and Madison, according to the Southern Environmental Law Center.

If the wastewater discharge limits are finalized, there would be an annual reduction of 580 million pounds of pollutants nationwide, EPA Administrator Michael Regan said last week.

“EPA is doing the right thing for families and communities by eliminating toxic water pollution from coal plants using technology that’s available and affordable,” said Nick Torrey, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center in a prepared statement. “It’s essential that EPA stand firm on these zero discharge standards and strengthen its limits on wastewater from coal ash landfills, because that is the only way to stop poisoning the drinking water sources that families and vulnerable downstream communities depend on.”

Utilities would be expected to use “best available technology” to comply with the new rules. But they would have latitude on their choice of technologies to do so.

“Zero-discharge limits” would apply to wastewater from bottom ash — residue found in boilers — and from scrubbers used to reduce air toxics. That means essentially no contaminants could be present. This can be accomplished by reverse osmosis and membrane systems, according to the EPA.

Millions of tons of contaminated ash is being excavated from unlined pits and placed in lined landfills Duke’s coal-fired power plants in North Carolina. (The process is complete at four plants.) Discharge from those landfills and unlined ponds would be subject to the new daily and monthly limits for arsenic and mercury.

“We are reviewing the rule to determine how the provisions align with our planned retirement of coal operations as well as assessing the ability of current installed treatment technology to meet the limits,” Culbert said. “All of our facilities will be affected by the landfill leachate provisions because leachate will be generated regardless of coal combustion.”

In its environmental justice analysis for the rule, the EPA noted that coal-fired power plants tend to be located in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color, including indigenous lands.

These areas are often disproportionately burdened with many pollution sources.

In North Carolina, more than half of Duke Energy’s 14 coal-fired power plants — both retired and existing — lie within environmental justice communities, according to census data: Belews Creek, Dan River, Allen, Mayo, Weatherspoon, Sutton, Lee and Asheville.

When finalized, the EPA’s new rules are scheduled to go into effect in 2024.