Quick Hit Ellyn Fortino Monday September 9th, 2013, 5:22pm

National Report: 17 Illinois Coal-Fired Power Plants Discharge Toxic Water Pollution

A recently-released national report has sounded the alarm on coal-fired power plants that are dumping certain toxic metals into waterways without limits. 

Of the 274 coal-fired power plants nationwide that discharge coal ash and scrubber wastewater into public waters, 17 are in Illinois, according to a report released by Clean Water Action, the Sierra Club and other conservation groups. 

Not one of these Illinois coal-fired power plants has a cap on the amount of toxic metals, such as arsenic, boron, cadmium, mercury and selenium, allowed to be released into waterways, according to the “Closing the Floodgates” report. Few of them have requirements to monitor or report the toxic discharges to federal authorities. 

The report’s researchers reviewed water permits for 386 coal-fired power plants in the country and looked at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Enforcement and Compliance History Online database.

They found companies and permitting agencies are largely ignoring the Clean Water Act. Overall, 70 percent of the 274 coal-fired power plants cited in the report have no ceiling on the amount of toxic metals dumped into water bodies. More than 100 of them are not required to monitor or report their toxic-metal discharges, and 187 plants are operating with an expired Clean Water Act permit, the report found.

In Illinois, 12 coal-fired plants are pumping waste into water bodies already formally designated as having compromised water quality, including the Illinois and Chicago rivers and Coffeen Lake in Montgomery County. At least 10 coal-fired power plants in the state dump millions of gallons of waste each day into the Illinois River and its tributaries, the groups found.

The report calls for strong EPA standards that will limit toxic water pollution from Illinois coal plants and others across the country. Existing national guidelines written on this issue have not been updated in more than 30 years.

“Water pollution from coal-fired power plants poses a huge threat to our environment and public health,” Cindy Skrukrud with Sierra Club Illinois said in a statement. “Toxic metals that discharge into Illinois waterways can affect everything from the water we drink to the water we recreate in and the fish we eat. We deserve to have common sense limits on toxic water pollution to protect our health and the health of our river systems.”

As a result of a legal settlement with conservation groups, the EPA proposed national standards for toxic water discharged from coal-fire power plants in April.

But the report’s authors claim the White House’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has “caved to the coal industry” and is attempting to dilute the proposed guidelines.

The EPA’s strongest proposed standard, called “Option 5,” would work to eliminate almost all liquid discharge and reduce pollution by 5.3 billion pounds each year, which the environmental groups are backing as the final rule. The second strongest standard, or “Option 4”, would reduce pollution by 3.3 billion pounds a year.

Via a Freedom of Information Act request, the environmental groups reviewed “red-line copies” of the EPA’s proposed pollution standards sent to OMB and found the office did not let the EPA select its more protective preferred “Option 4.”

Instead, OMB put “weaker options on the table as ‘preferred’ courses of action,” which would reduce far less pounds of pollution each year than the EPA’s original preferred options, the report’s authors wrote.

But that’s not all, the report noted. OMB rewrote EPA’s proposal further, “taking positions that are directly opposed to the expert opinions formerly expressed by EPA staff.”

From the report:

For instance, the EPA had written, correctly, that “surface impoundments” — settling ponds — “do not represent the best available technology for controlling pollutants in [scrubber sludge]” in almost all circumstances. OMB deleted this sentence, and instead announced that “EPA” was proposing options that would keep using “surface impoundments for treatment of [scrubber sludge]” — exactly the opposite of what the EPA’s scientists had proposed.

OMB added other language endorsing ponds and parroting industry concerns about the biological treatment that the EPA had proposed in Option 4. OMB added paragraph after paragraph of rationales for why Option 4 was not preferred, inventing 'concerns' that warranted dropping that protective option. None of this language was in the EPA’s original proposal.

"These options would preserve the status quo or do little to control dangerous pollution dumping," the report's authors wrote of the OMB options. "Weak options are a giveaway to polluters and Americans deserve better."

The EPA is still accepting public comment for the proposal. It will accept comments until September 20, which is an extension from the original deadline of August 6. 

The report specifically flags the amount of toxins that gush from Ameren’s Edwards coal-fired power plant near Bartonville, Ill. The plant has an 89-acre, unlined coal ash pond that is 32 feet high. It's located near the Illinois River and recreational areas, such as Pekin Lake. The Edwards plant reportedly dumps more than 4 million gallons per day of ash pond wastewater, the report noted.

Members of the Central Illinois Healthy Community Alliance and Illinois water experts toured the Illinois River back in July to explore the issue of water pollution discharge from Edwards and the Midwest Generation’s Powerton coal-fired power plant near Pekin.

“The pollution from the Edwards and Powerton coal plants is inescapable in the Peoria area,” said Joyce Blumenshine of the Sierra Club Heart of Illinois group. “It affects our air and water. As our family and other Peoria families enjoy Pekin Lake and the Illinois River this summer, it terrifies me to think about the levels of toxic metals leaching into our beloved waterways.”

Ameren’s current permit for water discharged from Edwards coal plant is expired. Last month, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency held a public hearing to gather input on its new draft permit.

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