New Effluent Limitations for Coal Fired Power Plants

Posted on 11/11/2015 by Roger Marks

In the Federal Register this week, US EPA published a Final Rule under the Clean Water Act to establish nationally applicable limits on the amount of toxic metals and other harmful pollutants that steam electric power plants may discharge in sources of wastewater.

The Final Rule, which takes effect on January 4, 2016, will affect the electric power generation industry, namely large, coal-burning power plants covered by NAICS Codes 22111, 221112, and 221113. Oil-fired generating units and small generating units (those with a nameplate capacity of 50 or fewer megawatts) are exempt.

In addition to lowering the effluent thresholds for arsenic, mercury, selenium, nitrogen, and other pollutants, the Final Rule will require certain coal-fired steam electric power plants to install new technologies that reduce discharge of toxic metals and other toxins.

New Clean Water Act Effluent Limitations
The specific effluent limitations that will apply under the new Final Rule will vary by the particular source of wastewater at the utility and depend on a few factors, like whether the discharge source is a new or existing source and whether the discharge to water is direct or indirect. The discharge rule includes variable discharge limits for particular wastewaters, including:
  • Cooling tower blowdown;
  • Once through cooling water;
  • Flue gas mercury control (FGMC) wastewater;
  • Flue gas desulfurization (FGD) wastewater;
  • Fly ash transport water;
  • Bottom ash transport water;
  • Coal pile runoff;
  • Combustion residual leachate;
  • Gasification wastewater; and
  • Chemical metal cleaning wastes.
The rulemaking also revises 40 CFR 423.11 to add and clarify specialized definitions of terms like low volume waste sources, fly ash and bottom ash, flue gas desulfurization (FGD), transport water, gasification wastewater, and others.

Specific Pollutants Addressed by EPA's Rule
EPA's new discharge rule for power plants seeks to control emissions of a number of pollutants, including:
  • Oil and grease;
  • Mercury, chromium, and zinc;
  • Arsenic and selenium;
  • Copper and iron;
  • Nitrates and nitrites (N);
  • Total Suspended Solids (TSS);
  • Total Dissolved Solids (TDS);
  • Free available chlorine and residual chlorine; and
  • Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).
The Final Rule also imposes limits on the pH level of wastewater discharges.

Why Power Plants Discharge Pollutants to the Water
This Final Rule is not US EPA's first attempt at regulating the coal-fired electricity industry. Between 1974 and 1982, US EPA created and revised effluent limitation guidelines for wastewaters from utilities. Since then, EPA has made great progress restricting air pollution emissions from steam-powered electric power generators. This week's Final Rule is the first new wastewater rule since 1982.

One major way power plants have "cleaned up" their air emissions is by filtering, or "scrubbing," to remove particulate matter like soot and ash, or toxic chemicals like sulfur, nitrogen, and mercury. The air emissions pass through a water-based filter system that "scrubs" the air, removing particulate matter from the air and resulting in cleaner air emissions.

The soot, ash, and other substances left behind in the scrubber water then must be discharged somehow. Put simply, to better protect the air, power plants were left to shift these pollutants to the water instead.

What's Next?
In some sense, the pollutants addressed by this Final Rule were transferred from the air to the water. As these pollutants are removed from the water, some could make their way to facilities' solid waste streams. Some of this solid waste may already meet EPA's definition of hazardous waste, which is regulated under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. Will this prompt EPA to create new RCRA hazardous waste rules to address this form of waste? It's not unthinkable.

The new Final Rule is the latest US EPA action affecting the power-generating industry. In August, EPA announced its new Clean Power Plan, which aims to lower carbon pollution from the power sector.

New Clean Air Act Regulations Now Available
A new online course is now available to help environmental engineers, EHS managers, and compliance officers keep their facilities in compliance with the US EPA’s Clean Air Act programs. The Clean Air Act Regulations guides professionals through compliance with Title V permit requirements, emissions and pollution controls, annual greenhouse gas (GHG) reporting, Risk Management Planning (RMP) responsibilities, and more. 

Build the expertise needed to make informed on-the-job decisions that help your site control pollution and maintain compliance. Interactive, easy to use, and available 24/7, the new online course will help you get up to speed with new and changing EPA clean air rules and protect your facility from costly EPA enforcement. 

Tags: Act, Air, Clean, EPA, new rules

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