Cutting 290,000 Tons of Water Pollution a 12 months, One Coal Plant at a Time
Coal is a grimy fuel. It’s not only air pollution or climate change.
EPA proposed recent regulations next week to scale back the water pollution impacts of coal-fired power plants. As EPA regulations go, these count as fairly minor. They got a bit of stories coverage in coal country and industry publications. But they are going to eliminate the discharge of hundreds of tons of pollutants, including plenty of metals that pose health problems. The rulemaking illustrates the highly technical nature of regulations and the lawless nature of Trump’s EPA. It also gives some clues about where the Biden Administration could also be headed in the way in which it approaches regulatory decisions.
Judges sometimes give the impression they think agencies simply pick regulatory standards based on bureaucratic whim. In point of fact, regulations involve some highly technical issues. A few sentences regarding “FGD wastewater,” provides you with the flavour of EPA’s evaluation: “More specifically, the technology basis for BAT would come with chemical precipitation to remove suspended solids and scaling compounds prior to treatment with a number of stages of nanofiltration, electrodialysis reversal (EDR), RO, and/or forward osmosis. The permeate from the ultimate stage of treatment would then be recycled back into the plant either as FGD makeup water or boiler makeup water.” Fascinating stuff in the event you’re an engineer, I’m sure, but the common judge has precisely zero expertise in these matters. There’s reason for judges to defer to agencies on these issues.
Because it happens, a part of the justification for EPA’s alternative of this technology actually is interesting. The Trump Administration had decided that this sort of filtration was not an “available technology.” The reasoning was that it had only been in US pilot projects and in foreign facilities. I assume “America First” meant ignoring experience in other countries. The Biden EPA fairly briskly rejected that reasoning, based on “the various full scale foreign installations of membrane filtration to treat FGD wastewater, the massive variety of successful domestic and international pilot tests of membrane filtration on FGD wastewater, successful use of membrane filtration on other steam electric wastestreams, and using membrane filtration on wastestreams in a many alternative industries besides the steam electric industry.” There’s no doubt that EPA is correct on the law: a technology could be “available” although it’s not utilized by the regulated industry. That is one other indication of how little weight science and law carried within the Trump Administration.
One other interesting point pertains to the cost-benefit evaluation accompanying the rule. EPA has been capable of quantify plenty of the impacts of probably the most common air pollutants. We all know much less about water pollutants and their health and ecological effects. EPA provides a reasonably lengthy list of things that it was unable to quantify but that appear potentially significant. The main quantifiable advantages of the regulation are indirect. They may end in the closure of just one coal plant but reduced usage of others, which can mean significant reductions specifically pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Those account for the majority of the quantifiable advantages.
Because so many advantages were unquantifiable, EPA emphasized other aspects to justify the regulation. The industry could absorb the prices, with just one plant closure out of the present coal fleet. The impact on consumers’ utility bills could be minimal: on average, 63 cents annually or a few nickel a month. Within the meantime, the general impact on water quality could be significant: a 12.5% decrease in waters with chronic water quality violations, a big reduction in acute water quality violations, and as much as an 82% reduction in areas with water pollution concentrations above health standards. This move away from reliance on quantified advantages suggests that cost-benefit evaluation could also be less central to decisionmaking on this administration.
In contrast, the essential of environmental justice considerations could also be increasing: they’re given careful consideration within the proposed rule and were analyzed in a separate document quite than being just folded into the usual “regulatory impact evaluation.” A shift in emphasis may be underway.