Defending Standards to Prevent Water Pollution from Coal-fired Power Plants

Comments on this Rollback Notice were due on January 21, 2020

Read the Proposal @

Public Hearing: The EPA held an online public hearing on December 19, 2019. 

Defending Standards to Prevent Water Pollution from Coal-fired Power Plants

What’s at Risk and Talking Points 

Steam Electric Effluent Limitation Guideline for Coal Fired Power Plants

The Trump administration has proposed to roll back a 2015 water pollution control rule which required for the first time that coal-fired power plants treat the toxic wastewater generated when air emission filters are cleaned and dry dispose of the toxic ash from burning coal instead of washing it into ponds known to leak and overflow.  While saving coal fired power plants $175 million a year, this proposed rollback will harm public health and the environment by allowing high levels of selenium, mercury, nitrates, and other toxic chemicals to continue to contaminate private wells, community drinking water supplies, and downstream fisheries.  This action is important because coal fired power plants are the largest single discharger of toxic pollutants currently unregulated in the U.S.  The 2015 rule documented that coal fired power plants discharge over 1 billion pounds of pollutants every year into 4000 miles of rivers, contaminating the drinking water and fisheries of 2.7 million people[i].  The Environmental Integrity Project and Earthjustice recently analyzed industry monitoring data on coal ash ponds and found that more than 91 percent of them have contaminated the underlying ground water.[ii]

The 2015 rule was designed to prevent the catastrophic spill of coal ash ponds which occurred in Tennessee and North Carolina.  When the coal ash pond at the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) plant in Kingston, Tennessee overflowed in 2008, it released 5.4 million cubic yards of toxic slurry.  The spill leveled homes and covered about half a mile of land, requiring a $1.2B cleanup.[iii]  In 2014 a Duke Energy plant in North Carolina released 39,000 tons of toxic slurry from one of its ponds, contaminating miles of river and requiring a $3 million cleanup.[iv

The Trump Administration’s Proposed Rollback

The November proposal would roll back two key requirements of the 2015 steam electric effluent limitation guideline rule. 

  • The first requirement being rolled back is the mandate that coal fired power plants dispose of the bottom ash formed from burning coal in dry form rather than washing it into ponds which are known to leak and overflow. The 2015 rule further required that plants not release any transport water from this dry disposal process by continually recycling the water.
  • The second requirement being rolled back is the mandate that the toxic wastewater generated from cleaning air emission filters be treated before release to a water body. The 2015 rule required addition of chemicals to remove toxic substances followed by biological treatment so that bacteria could further render the toxics harmless. This required treatment was effective in reducing arsenic, mercury, selenium, and nitrates but did not remove bromides which can cause the formation of carcinogenic compounds in downstream drinking water supplies. The 2015 rule identified thermal treatment as the technology a power plant could voluntarily employ to reduce bromide in the air filter wastewater wherever bromide was causing drinking water problems.

The 2015 rule requirements would have gone into effect between 2018 and 2023, but EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt delayed the effective date while a replacement rule was developed. The November proposed replacement rule has effective dates between 2023 and 2028.

In addition to delaying implementation, the replacement rule would be less protective than the 2015 rule. It would  require a less costly biological treatment system for the air filter wastewater which results in increased selenium discharges and a less costly bottom ash transport system which results in toxic process water releases.  The increased selenium discharges are very harmful because this toxic chemical bioaccumulates in the aquatic food chain and persists for years, posing a lethal threat to fisheries and waterfowl. The bottom ash transport water releases are also problematic since the rule allows a daily discharge of 10 percent of this water and imposes no limits on its toxic content, leaving it up to state permitting authorities to decide what toxic limits should be required.  In addition, the proposal exempts three categories of power plants from the new relaxed requirements, allowing those plants to discharge even greater amounts of toxic pollutants.

The first category exempted consists of a single facility, TVA’s plant at Cumberland City, Tennessee.  While this plant discharges millions of gallons more toxic wastewater from its air filters than any other plant in the country, the proposal requires only chemical treatment of this wastewater, resulting in the discharge of high levels of mercury, selenium, and nitrates into the Cumberland River which is a drinking water source and a designated Outstanding National Resource Water.

The second category exempted is coal fired power plants which are used only during peak power demand.  All of these plants are exempted from both the biological treatment of their air filter wastewater and the dry disposal of their ash.  These plants are only required to provide chemical treatment for their air filter wastewater, resulting in the discharge of high levels of mercury, selenium, and nitrates into waterways, and are allowed to continue washing their bottom ash into the ponds. 

The third category exempted is coal fired power plants scheduled for retirement by 2028.  These plants have no requirements to treat their toxic wastewater and can continue to pour that untreated wastewater and their bottom ash into the ponds. Because the proposed requirements will not reduce bromide in the air filter wastewater, the rule recommends membrane filtration to reduce bromide where it is causing problems with drinking water.  The new rule identifies membrane filtration as the recommended voluntary technology rather than thermal treatment which was recommended in the 2015 rule.  The proposal explains that membrane filtration technology has progressed significantly since the 2015 rule was promulgated and is now much less expensive than thermal treatment and equally effective at removing bromide and many other toxics.


 Talking points

EPA is proposing deregulatory steps to save the coal-fired plants money rather than supporting actions to protect public health, safety and welfare from toxic pollution of waterways.

Both the Clean Water Act and case law are clear that these steam electric effluent limitation guidelines for Best Available Treatment Technology must reflect the highest performance in the industry.  Given that it is not clear why EPA did not require dry disposal of bottom ash for all plants since many plants already do this.  It is also unclear why the agency did not require continuous recycling of bottom ash transport water in order to prevent the discharge of toxic process water. 

The proposed rollbacks are not justified.  The impact would be toxic contamination of private wells, community drinking water supplies, and downstream fisheries. The cost savings EPA is providing to coal fired power plants will be dwarfed by the public’s cost to treat their contaminated drinking water and clean up future coal ash spills.

Repealing critical health protections from toxic pollution is exactly the wrong thing to do in order to extend the life of inefficient, expensive coal-fired power plants which are likely to close no matter how EPA reduces their costs for pollution controls.


There Is More That You Can Do

It would be great if well-reasoned, fact-based comments were enough to win the day, but in today's deregulatory environment, raising the political stakes of regulatory rollbacks is crucial to stopping or slowing them down.  Submitting comments is a good first step. For rules that are particularly important to you, please consider taking one or more of the following steps, too. These methods can help to mobilize public opinion and spur elected leaders to fight the destructive changes that the Trump Administration is promoting.

Write to your members of Congress and other elected officials.  Let them know your concerns and ask them to weigh in on this rollback and speak out publicly in favor EPA’s existing statements on this issue.  These links make it easy to write your members of Congress (your representative in the House of Representatives and your two senators).  If you're willing to register with Countable, this link -- -- allows you to identify your members of Congress and send a message to all three at once.  Or, you can write them separately -- you can use or to find your members' email contact forms or snail mail addresses.

Let your state officials know that you are concerned about this issue.  Write to your elected leaders, get involved with local activists who are encouraging local or state action.

Voice your concern and encouragement in the media, social media, at local meetings, and at every opportunity.  In the absence of federal leadership, it is vitally important that states and local governments fill the void.

Write letters to the editor and even op-eds in your local papers.  Letters to the editor should be fairly brief.

Organize or participate in campaigns to make phone calls or write letters to members of Congress and make phone calls to radio stations during call-in days or take other actions to spread the word.

Inform your local officials about these issues and ask them to make a public statement or submit comments on a proposed rollback if your jurisdiction has a stake in these issues.  Bring up these issues at town hall meetings.

Spread the word via social media.  Tag your elected officials so they know how you feel.

Join or organize demonstrations.

Talk to your friends, colleagues and neighbors and encourage them to comment and otherwise join in this effort.



[i] See the 2015 rule and background information here:

[ii] This study can be accessed from

[iii]EPA, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Tennessee Valley Authority Kingston Coal Ash Release Site Project Completion Fact Sheet, December 2014.

[iv] EPA, Case Summary: Duke Energy Agrees to $3 Million Cleanup for Coal Ash Release in the Dan River, May 2014.



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