From The Editor | May 21, 2014

Predicting The Impact Of EPA's Proposed Power Plant Effluent Limits

Laura Martin

By Laura Martin

Wastewater from steam electric power plants releases a variety of contaminants — including mercury, arsenic, lead, and selenium — into the environment. According to the EPA, steam electric plants are responsible for over half of all toxic pollutants discharged to surface waters from the industrial categories regulated under the Clean Water Act. These pollutants are linked to cancer, neurological damage, and ecological damage. 

To combat this, the EPA proposed a regulation in April 2013 that would strengthen the controls on discharges from steam electric plants by revising effluent limitations. If passed, the regulation would set the first federal limits on the levels of toxic metals in wastewater discharged from power plants in over three decades. The EPA was under a consent decree to take final action by May 2014, but power industry concerns about the proposed regulations prompted the agency to push the action date to September 2015.

Many in the power industry understand that changes in effluent limitations are needed to protect the environment. The debate centers on how power plants should be required to achieve those changes, said Mike Dimitriou, a member of the Water and Wastewater Equipment Manufacturers Association (WWEMA) board of directors.

“The EPA is absolutely right that power plants are responsible for a high level of metals and other contaminants being released into the environment,” said Dimitriou, who is also the president of WRT, a manufacturer of treatment systems for water contaminant removal. “But they aren’t addressing the problem effectively, which is going to make it difficult for power plants to comply.”

A big concern for members of the power industry is paying for the new technology that would be required to comply with the EPA’s proposed regulations. Under these rules regulations, power plants would need to either install new treatment technologies to reduce the amount of pollutants discharged or implement process changes that completely eliminate discharge, like dry handing or closed-loop systems. There are approximately 1,200 steam electric power plants in the U.S, and around 500 are coal-fired units, which will be most heavily affected by these regulations.  Many of them cannot currently afford the upgrades required to comply, according to Dimitriou.

“The cost is going to be significant for them,” Dimitriou stated. “A month after the publication of this proposed rule, several power plants closed because they knew they would not be able to afford these changes.  The general consensus in the industry seems to be that this rule is going to force changes that in the long term are going to be very expensive.”

 Dimitriou believes this expense will have a sizeable impact on the power industry, disproportionally impacting the Northeast, where most coal-fired power plants are located.  

“It is forcing power plants to either switch to natural gas or close,” he says. “It will impact the cost of electricity and the availability of it. It will likely raise rates significantly for the consumer.” 

EPA statements tell a different story.

“Under the most stringent preferred regulatory option and assuming 100 percent pass through of costs to consumers, EPA projects the average monthly electricity bill for residential consumer will increase by 22 cents, or 0.23 percent,” the agency stated in a webcast presentation on the proposal titled Steam Electric Power Generating Effluent Guidelines.

In the same presentation, the EPA estimated that annual costs will be between $185 million and $954 million per year for the power industry to comply with the proposed regulations. They don’t project any plants closing as a result of the regulations. 

Many power utilities think the EPA cost estimates are off by a factor of 10, said Dimitriou.

“They need to reevaluate how much this is truly going to cost the power industry,” he said.

Implementing the technology required to comply with these regulations could also be a challenge for the industry. The previous regulations, established in 1982, were based on the use of settling ponds and were mainly focused on suspended solids.  Updating to comply with the new regulations would mean installing unfamiliar technology for some power plants.

There has been no emphasis to do anything like this before,” said Dimitriou.So we have no idea what will work best.  It could be everything from biological treatment to iron exchange. We really have no clue, and a lot of the technologies that may be needed aren’t commonly used in the U.S.”

Determining which technologies will work best may require power plants to undergo extensive research and pilot testing for each potential technology. With a multitude of options and applications available, evaluating them all could take many years, said Dimitriou. He believes that the current proposed regulations don’t allow enough time to do this effectively.  According to the EPA presentation, the current draft of the regulations allows for delayed implementation of up to eight years in certain cases.  Which facilities will be eligible for delayed implementation is unclear at this point, said Dimitriou.

Because so many power plants are asking for clarification on these issues, Dimitriou is skeptical that the EPA will make a decision anytime soon. He predicts that the decision will be delayed past September 2015, when it is currently set to occur.

Regardless of when it happens, Dimitriou is confident that the power industry will find a way to make whatever the EPA decides work.

It is going to be difficult to comply to this with the timing and cost factors that the EPA is currently proposing,” he said. “But they aren’t asking for anything that can’t be done. Hopefully everyone can figure out a way to make it a bit easier.”