Chesapeake PSR

Time to limit toxic discharges from coal plants

Toxics and HealthTimothy WhitehouseComment

Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) is currently reviewing the wastewater permits for three of Maryland’s nine coal-fired power plants. Now is the time for MDE to strengthen the limits for toxic metals that are discharged daily into Maryland rivers from the Morgantown, Chalk Point and Dickerson power plants.

Since the Trump administration’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) cancelled the 2015 Effluent Limitations Guidelines (ELG), the onus for protecting our waterways, aquatic life and human health from exposure to power plant toxic discharge now rests squarely on MDE. The EPA estimates that each year 1.4 billion pounds of toxic waste from power plants flows into U.S. waterways. Once in our environment, many of these pollutants remain for years. The now stalled 2015 ELG rules were expected to reduce coal plant toxic wastewater by 90 percent.

Chesapeake PSR, along with other health and environmental groups, has legally challenged the EPA coal plant wastewater backpedal. Chesapeake PSR also testified at the July 2017 MDE public hearing in favor of tighter power plant wastewater limits and at public meetings throughout the state.

What is power plant wastewater?

For each ton of coal that is burned to produce electricity, roughly 100 to 300 pounds of coal ash byproduct is generated. The ash residue collects in the generating station’s boilers and in the smokestack air scrubbers. The water used to flush the boilers and scrubbers is tainted with harmful toxic metals and then is discharged into nearby waterways.

Morgantown and Dickerson wastewater flows into the Potomac River, while Chalk Point’s discharge flows directly into the Patuxent River. Polluted wastewater from all three NRG-owned power plants eventually finds its way into the Chesapeake Bay.

Toxic metal pollution with few limits

The current power plant wastewater regulations were revised in 1982. The 35-year-old wastewater discharge rules are woefully inadequate as the rules focus on settling out particulates, not treating dissolved pollutants. Toxic metals found in coal plant wastewater can include arsenic, lead, mercury, selenium, cadmium and chromium.

Unless MDE takes decisive action and drafts reasonable wastewater discharge limits, NRG will be able to operate legally under the outdated 1982 rules. Stronger wastewater limits enforced by MDE would require the three power plants in question to install up-to-date wastewater pollution controls in an effort to drastically reduce toxic wastewater pollution.

Toxic seafood consumption

The human health benefits cited in the EPA’s 2015 final ELG ruling centered on reducing human consumption of wastewater contaminated seafood.

The EPA reported that exposure to these coal plant wastewater metals result in neurological effects to children from birth to age seven, the incidence of cardiovascular disease in adults from exposure to lead, neurological effects to infants from in-utero exposure to mercury, and incidence of skin cancer and cardiovascular disease from exposure to arsenic.

“The companies that willfully dump these poisons into public water sources also know the dangers, yet they are unwilling to pay the modest costs of cleaning up the pollution they generate,” said Sara Via, PhD, co-lead of Chesapeake PSR's Climate Health Action Team. “What is truly shocking is that after the EPA documented the dangers of power plant effluent in its own report, Mr. Pruitt now just says essentially: ‘Never mind.’” said Via.

November 9 Chesapeake PSR Event: health consequences linked to fossil fuel energy

If you’re interested in a deeper dive into the health consequences associated with generating electricity from fossils fuels in Maryland, consider attending our workshop on Nov. 9, 2017. The workshop will be held in Baltimore at the MedChi located at 1211 Cathedral Street Baltimore, MD, 21201.

The event begins at 5:45 p.m., with dinner and a social. The workshop will conclude around 8:45 p.m.

The workshop will address: 

  • Air emissions and water discharges of toxic and harmful air pollutants from coal-fired and natural gas-fired power plants and natural gas infrastructure in Maryland and from electricity imported into Maryland.
  • The methods used by the state and federal governments to collect information on air emissions and water discharges and how the public can access and interpret this information.
  • Information gaps, providing participants with an understanding of the health consequences of using fossil fuels to produce electricity.

For more information and registration details, visit here.

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