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EPA Plans to Revise Power Plant Wastewater Limits

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) formally unveiled its plans to initiate a new rulemaking to revise the 2020 Steam Electric Effluent Limitation Guidelines (ELG) for certain wastewater discharge limits for coal power plants.

EPA on July 26 noted that it undertook a science-based review of the 2020 Steam Electric Reconsideration Rule under Executive Order (E.O.) 13990, finding that there are opportunities to strengthen certain wastewater pollution discharge limits.

For example, treatment systems using membranes continue to advance as an effective option for treating a wide variety of industrial pollution, including from steam electric power plants rapidly, it said. EPA expects this technology to continue advancing, and the agency will evaluate its availability as part of the new rulemaking.

However, during the 2020 ELG rulemaking process, EPA specifically rejected membranes as the “best available technology economically achievable” for flue gas desulfurization (FGD) wastewater because not a single facility in the United States had adopted the technology for anything beyond small-scale pilots. As of October 2020, some information in the rulemaking record suggests that coal-fired facilities in China may have installed membranes to treat FGD wastewater, but there was no actual data on the short- or long-term performance of these particular systems.

While the agency pursues this new rulemaking process, current regulations will be implemented and enforced.

The 2020 rule modified only certain aspects of the 2015 Steam Electric Effluent Limitation Guidelines (ELGs) rule, such that requirements promulgated in 2015 and 2020 are currently in effect.

EPA said that the current requirements provide significant environmental protections relative to a 1982 rule that would otherwise be in effect.

EPA, on July 26, signed a Federal Register notice to announce its intent to initiate this rulemaking process. Because this rulemaking could result in more stringent ELGs that are the subject of petitioners’ claims in litigation pending in the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, the Department of Justice, in coordination with EPA, is filing a request with the court to hold the litigation in abeyance. The court is expected to grant EPA’s recommendation.

The agency intends to issue a proposed rule for public comment in the fall of 2022.

The American Public Power Association filed comments supporting the proposed 2020 ELG Reconsideration rule and creating the low utilization boiler subcategory.

To read EPA’s notice and learn more about Steam Electric ELGs, click here.

On September 30, 2015, EPA finalized a rule revising the regulations for the Steam Electric Power Generating category. The rule set the first federal limits on the levels of toxic metals in wastewater that can be discharged from power plants.

On August 31, 2020, the agency finalized a rule revising the 2015 requirements for two specific waste streams produced by steam electric power plants -- flue gas desulfurization wastewater and bottom ash transport water.

On January 20, 2021, President Joe Biden signed E.O. 13990, which directed the EPA to review all regulations and policies undertaken by the Trump Administration and rescind or revise any that do not protect public health and the environment. Accordingly, the EPA conducted a review of the 2020 Steam Electric Reconsideration Rule.