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EPA Lets Coal-Fired Power Plants Dump|Tons of Toxins Into Air & Water, Groups Say

WASHINGTON (CN) - The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has abandoned its duty to regulate discharge of toxic metals from coal-fired power plants, allowing mercury discharges of 900 times a safe level, and selenium discharges of 4,000 times the safe limit for water, two environmental groups claim in Federal Court.

"Despite the gravity and scope of this pollution problem, EPA never has set national standards to limit toxic metals discharges from power plants," the Defenders of Wildlife and the Sierra Club say. They say the EPA has not revises its effluent limitations for 28 years, despite an "exponential" increase in toxic pollution caused by increasing use of "scrubber" systems, and the resulting coal ash and sludge from them.

The environmental groups want the agency to adopt the "long overdue regulations governing wastewater discharges from power plants."

"Over the past 20 years, growing use of FGD [flue gas desulfurization] 'scrubber' systems has increased exponentially the amount of toxic metals discharged from power plants, and pollution is expected to become significantly worse as installation of scrubbers increase by a projected 28 percent over the next 15 years," according to the complaint.

"Despite the gravity and scope of this pollution problem, EPA never has set national standards to limit toxic metals discharges from power plants. Indeed, EPA has failed to revise the effluent limitations and effluent guidelines ('ELGs') applicable to power plants for 28 years, despite repeated acknowledgement that the existing effluent limitations and ELGs have not kept pace with the installation of FGD systems and other developments in the electric utility industry," the complaint states.

This despite the fact that the Clean Water Act requires that the EPA determine whether regulations need to be revised every 5 years.

"Despite acknowledging that fundamental changes in the steam electric power industry have caused a tremendous increase in the amount of pollution discharged from power plants over the past several decades, EPA has failed to revise the effluent limitations and ELGs in the Steam Electric Power Generating category for over 28 years," the groups say.

Coal-fired power plants generate 130 million tons of coal ash, scrubber sludge and other combustion residues a year, according to the EPA's own figures. In 2008 plants dumped 2 million pounds of metals and metal compounds into surrounding waters, yet "there are no national standards regulating any of the toxic metals routinely discharged."

As early as 1982, the EPA "recognized that its effluent limitations did not limit wastewaters from FGD systems," and it has "acknowledged repeatedly that its 1982 regulations are inadequate," according to the complaint.

The environmentalists say the EPA has identified 41 heavy metals, including arsenic, cyanide and lead, as "potential constituents of concern" in scrubber wastewater.

The EPA promised to revise its regulations after a public outcry, including a notice of intent to sue from the two plaintiffs, but "has declined to commit to an expeditious timeline for issuing the revised regulations."

"Instead, EPA informally has advised plaintiff groups that it intends to publish revised regulations over 4 years from now, in mid-2014," according to the complaint.

"Between now and 2015, the volume of toxic pollution from coal plant discharges will only grow, as EPA estimates that total scrubbed capacity of coal-fired power plants will increase by 16 percent," the groups add.

They want the EPA and its Administrator Lisa Jackson ordered to issue revised regulations, as required by the Clean Water Act.

They are represented by Jennifer Peterson with the Environmental Integrity Project, of Washington, D.C., and Abigail Dillen with Earthjustice, of New York, N.Y.

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