On Tuesday, EPA announced its intention to issue new effluent guidelines for the Steam Electric Power Generating industry by sometime in 2012. The announcement follows an EPA study in 2008 which indicated that toxic metals, particularly those collected as part of flue gas desulfurization processes, can pose a problem in facility effluent. EPA’s announcement is not particularly surprising, given the ongoing study and given that EPA has not revised the guidelines since 1982. Indeed, notwithstanding EPA’s announcement, Environmental Integrity Project, Defenders of Wildlife and Sierra Club announced that they would still sue EPA over its failure to timely update the guidelines.

There are two reasons why this announcement is significant beyond just its implications for effluent discharges from these facilities. First, it’s hard to see EPA’s announcement – and the threat of NGO litigation – as anything other than another bullet aimed squarely at the coal industry. From climate change, to attacks on mountaintop removal, to the reaction to the TVA spill, to this effort to make the effluent guidelines more stringent, there is no doubt that coal is in the cross-hairs at the moment. If there are any doubters concerning this point, Duke Energy CEO Jim Rogers isn’t among them. He was quoted in this morning’sEnergy & Environment Daily as saying that it is at least possible to envision a world in 2050 “where coal is not in the equation.”

The other reason why this announcement is significant is that it raises fairly squarely the question regarding the very structure of our current regulatory system. It’s not really any more than happenstance and political convenience that we regulate different environmental media differently. In this context, it is noteworthy that EPA’s Science Advisory Board just recommended that EPA consider setting multi-pollutant standards under the Clean Air Act, rather than regulating each pollutant separately. Theoretically, that’s good as far as it goes, but it doesn’t really solve the problem of the balkanization of EPA’s different regulatory programs. In the long run, EPA’s regulatory efforts would be much more cost-effective – and would probably garner much more public support – if they were rationally based on an overall assessment of risk, across pollutants and across media.

I’m not holding my breath.