April 16, 2019 Read More →

Court rules EPA guidelines for coal wastewater, leachate need to be tightened

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A federal appeals court vacated two provisions of a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rule requiring power plants to treat toxic waste streams because the regulations illegally relied on decades-old technology.

The April 12 ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit dealt a fresh blow to the operators of coal-fired power plants, who may now have to spend millions of dollars more to comply with the EPA’s effluent limitations guidelines for steam power plants.

The court called EPA’s acknowledgment that the technology at issue is out of date a “charitable understatement” at best. “The last time these guidelines were updated was during the second year of President Reagan’s first term, the same year that saw the release of the first CD player, the Sony Watchman pocket television, and the Commodore 64 home computer,” the court recalled.

The EPA finalized the effluent rule in November 2015 after conducting a three-year study that found pollution from steam-electric power plant industry is the largest source of toxic water pollution in the country. The rule required cleanup technologies for six different waste streams, including two separate classes known as leachate and legacy wastewater.

Environmental and industry petitioners challenged the rule in multiple federal appeals courts and the cases were eventually consolidated before the 5th Circuit. A coalition of environmental groups including the Waterkeeper Alliance and the Sierra Club took specific aim at the EPA’s effluent limitations guidelines for leachate and legacy wastewater, arguing the agency violated the “technology-forcing” Clean Water Act by maintaining standards that had already been in place since 1982.

Leachate is liquid that becomes contaminated as it percolates through or drains from a landfill or surface impoundment, while legacy wastewater encompasses wastewater from five of the streams as long as it is generated before a certain date. Instead of requiring modern chemical or biological treatment like it did for other waste streams, the EPA selected surface impoundments — or pits where wastewater sits — as the “Best Available Technology Economically Available,” or BAT, for treating leachate and legacy wastewater under the statute. In doing so, the EPA asserted that it lacked sufficient data to determine whether chemical or biological treatment would be effective on leachate and legacy wastewater. However, environmental groups contended that the EPA’s own rulemaking record refutes the notion that surface impoundments are the BAT for leachate and legacy wastewater because the agency demonstrated that impoundments are ineffective at removing toxic pollutants.

More ($): Federal appeals court tosses US EPA wastewater guidelines targeting power plants

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