On Wednesday this week the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued its final 2015 Steam Electric Power Generating Effluent Guidelines, which establish the first federal limits on the levels of toxic metals that can be discharged in wastewater by power plants operating as utilities. Steam electric power plants use nuclear or fossil fuels (such as coal, oil and natural gas) to create steam to drive turbines connected to electric generators. Wastewater from these plants include arsenic, lead, mercury, selenium, chromium, and cadmium.

Updating regulations from 1982, the EPA indicated that the guidelines were necessary to keep up with technology improvements in the steam electric power industry. “New technologies for generating electric power and the widespread implementation of air pollution controls over the last 30 years have altered existing wastewater streams or created new wastewater streams at many power plants, particularly coal-fired plants. The 2015 rule addresses these changes in the industry.” The EPA indicated that the 1982 regulations were inadequate as they only focused on particulates, rather than addressing dissolved pollutants.

According to the EPA:

  • On an annual basis, the rule is projected to reduce the amount of toxic metals, nutrients, and other pollutants that steam electric power plants are allowed to discharge by 1.4 billion pounds and reduce water withdrawal by 57 billion gallons
  • Estimated annual compliance costs for the final rule are $480 million
  • Estimated benefits associated with the rule are $451 to $566 million

Generally, the rule establishes new or additional requirements for wastewater streams created by the steam electric power generation process. The rule also phases in the new, more stringent effluent limits for arsenic, mercury, selenium, and nitrogen in discharged wastewater and establishes zero discharge pollutant limits for flue gas mercury control wastewater. More stringent limits on arsenic, mercury, selenium and total dissolved solids in coal gasification wastewater was also introduced based on available evaporation technology. Some other rules are phased in through 2023, while more stringent controls apply to any new coal or petroleum coke plants that may be built in the future.

The EPA estimates that 12% of steam electric power plants will need to make capital investments to meet the requirements of this rule. Each such plant must comply between 2018 and 2023 depending on when its Clean Water Act permit comes up for renewal. If you own or operate a power plant, you will want to review the rule carefully to ensure your regulatory compliance.