NEW ORLEANS (CN) — A Fifth Circuit panel appeared flummoxed Wednesday over the EPA’s failure to regulate and strip pollutants from power plant wastewater in its latest guidelines.
Seven environmental groups filed motions for review of the EPA’s September 2015 effluent limitations standards. The motions were consolidated into one.
EPA set best-available technology limits for both legacy and leachate wastewater. Leachate is water that has trickled through a solid and leached out some of the solids. The environmental groups challenged the limits and the technology EPA said it planned to use to limit pollution.
“Leachate comprises 3 percent of the total volume of steam electric power plant discharges — just 3 percent — so from EPA’s perspective, that’s a small question,” Martin F. McDermott, senior trial attorney with the Environmental Defense Section of the Department of Justice told the three-judge panel.
Fifth Circuit Judge Catharina Haynes appeared skeptical.
“The overall concept here is reducing pollution, Haynes said, “eliminating it, ultimately, but at least reducing it for the time being. So why shouldn’t we be looking at the overall … everything that is going into a river … why isn’t that part of the analysis?
“When you say that something is only 3 percent — well, 3 percent of what?” Haynes continued. “Three percent of a dollar? That’s not very much. Three percent of a million dollars would sound like a lot to anybody. Right? So they [environmental groups] are saying the what is the problem — the 3 percent of what? — the what is so big that the 3 percent is big, and therefore you can’t just say, ‘Ahh,’ and forget about it,” Haynes said. “I’m not really understanding what’s wrong with their argument on that.”
McDermott replied: “EPA didn’t say forget about it. It said we’re going to treat this waste stream with surface impoundments. That’s the best available technology that they arrived on. So they did arrive at a treatment technology. It’s not good enough for the environmental petitioners, but they did arrive at that.”
The environmental petitioners would like to see chemical precipitation used instead.
Haynes asked if chemical precipitation was available, and economically possible.
McDermott said it is available.
“It is costly,” he continued, “but EPA didn’t do a cost benefit analysis here. Cost is one of the factors EPA took into account. I think probably the fairest way to look at it is, the EPA was looking at this rule holistically, and they were saying, ‘OK, let’s focus on the biggest bang for the buck, and we’ll go after that.’”
Haynes countered: “But you just said they didn’t look at the buck. So if we have technology that’s available, and we don’t really know the cost benefit, then how can we say we shouldn’t do it? ‘It’s possible to do, and I don’t really know what it costs, so I’m just not going to do it.’ I’m having trouble with that.”
McDermott said EPA standards are “not carved in stone,” that the EPA does reexamine its limits from time to time and that the rule will probably be revised, though he couldn’t say when.
“Forty years from now,” Haynes said.
McDermott called the process “exceedingly complicated.” The EPA did a thorough job, he said.