WATER POLLUTION: Rule could force ash pond closures
Annie Snider, E&E reporter
Published: Wednesday, September 30, 2015
New toxic discharge rules finalized by U.S. EPA today could push coal-fired power plants to close ash ponds across the country, a complicated and costly proposition, industry experts say.
The new rule, which sets technology-based limits for the discharge of toxic metals from coal plants, requires plants producing more than 50 megawatts of power to dispose of both fly ash and bottom ash in dry landfills rather than wet impoundments (Greenwire, Sept. 30). Fly ash and bottom ash are just two of several coal combustion wastes known as coal ash.
Most fly ash has already been going to landfills, but at many plants the bottom ash has still been stored in ponds, said Jim Wedeking, an attorney with the firm Sidley Austin LLP, which has represented Duke Energy Corp. in North Carolina.
Duke is in the process of closing all of its coal ash ponds in North Carolina following a spill last year and a new state law. The company is excavating and relocating at least some of the material to dry landfills.
"The rule does not require ash basin closures, but eventually, after [plant managers] deal with all of the requirements of this rule, they will likely look at their ash basins and go, 'Well, why are we still maintaining this?'" Wedeking said.
Earlier this year, EPA finalized a rule to govern the disposal of coal ash. Despite pressure from environmental groups, EPA decided against forcing the phaseout of wet ash impoundments. The new rule, however, adds tougher standards for disposal.
The final rule also sets new pollution limits for wastewater from smokestack scrubbers -- called flue gas desulfurization (FGD) wastewater -- that are based on both chemical precipitation and biological treatment. Those processes require large settling tanks and other new infrastructure that can be costly.
Combined, Wedeking predicted that these new requirements could tip the balance against keeping some coal-fired power plants open. Numerous plants have closed or may shut down because of other rules or market conditions.
"I think that for some plants that are already on the bubble for some companies -- older, smaller to mid-range-size plants that are really reduced to non-baseload duties right now -- they could close," he said. "It's not going to be a massive wave of closures, but for the ones that are already sort of on the brink, it could [encourage closure]."
The Electric Edison Institute, the trade association for investor-owned utilities, said it is still reviewing the new rule. But the groups' vice president for environmental issues, Quin Shea, said the new rule stands to increase costs that will get passed along to consumers.
"Throughout the rulemaking process, EEI and its members urged EPA to set technologically feasible and cost-effective achievable limits that apply nationally to a broad range of facilities," he said in a statement. "Despite some very limited changes EPA made to the [effluent limitations guidelines], significant implementation challenges remain that have the potential to create compliance challenges and increase customer costs."
But Shea did welcome changes to the compliance schedule made in the final rule, which he said appeared to be better aligned with timelines for other pending rules, including the Clean Power Plan.
Reporter Manuel Quiñones contributed.
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