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More coal plants could shut down under EPA’s new water pollution rule

The Biden administration proposes a strengthened rule on toxic metals released by coal plants, making it more expensive for them to operate

A fisherman walks along a dock on the St. Johns River in Palatka, Fla., as a coal-fired power plant looms in the background. A new EPA rule aims to reduce toxic water pollutants from coal power plants, making it more costly for them to operate. (David Goldman/AP)
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The Biden administration moved Wednesday to strengthen a rule limiting millions of gallons of toxic water pollution from coal power plants, a change that could lead some plants to shut down or switch to burning natural gas, rather than pay increased compliance costs.

In announcing the proposed restrictions, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan called them the strongest limits the federal government has ever set for wastewater from coal plants. He said they would particularly benefit poor neighborhoods and communities of color that are disproportionately harmed by pollution.

The change is part of the Biden administration’s broader agenda to toughen regulations governing industrial polluters that benefited from a more permissive environmental regime under President Donald Trump. But it also dovetails with the president’s emphasis on fighting climate change, by potentially speeding the phase out of coal, the single-biggest source of planet-warming carbon pollution.

The new rule would require coal power plants to more thoroughly filter toxic metals such as arsenic, mercury and selenium from their wastewater before releasing it into nearby rivers, streams and lakes. The EPA’s proposal rule does not mandate that plant operators use specific technology, but in order to comply, it’s likely they would have to upgrade their pollution control equipment.

EPA officials estimate the new rule will reduce the discharge of pollutants into the country’s waterways by about 584 million pounds annually. They did not provide an estimate of how much complying with the regulation could cost plant operators, but they said that implementing the rule would likely increase electricity costs by 63 cents per household per year.

For operators disinclined to spend heavily on a source of power generation that the U.S. market is abandoning, the rule offers an alternative pathway — an off-ramp. Plant operators can opt to stop burning coal by 2028 in exchange for not having to make significant investments in how they dispose of wastewater.

On a call with reporters Tuesday evening, Regan said the Biden administration’s proposed rule is intended “to protect public health and water quality” and is not aimed at “driving specific outcome in terms of companies’ investment strategies.”

Yet in meetings leading up the proposed rule, EPA officials said some coal plant operators voiced new interest in retiring their coal-fired generating units. Others did not want to share their plans with the agency. Administration officials offered few specifics about how the change could affect the industry, other than to say that they expect it will lead only one additional coal power plant to shut down.

The Trump administration offered operators a similar deal in 2020.

That year, Trump’s EPA weakened the Obama-era pollution limits on coal plants and extended the compliance deadlines out to 2025 — one of many attempts the administration made to boost the industry’s fortunes. Its rule largely exempted plants that planned to shut down or switch to gas by 2028.

Environmentalists condemned the rollback as a gift to an industry, citing power plant discharge as the largest source of toxic water pollution in the nation.

Yet even the more lax regulation didn’t change the math for many plant operators. According to the EPA, 74 electricity generating units at 33 power plants nationwide have notified state regulators of their plans to retire or convert to gas, at least in part because of the expense of stricter water pollution controls. But there is some uncertainty about this total, and the Sierra Club’s anti-coal campaign is aware of 71 units that plan to stop burning coal.

Josh Smith, senior staff attorney for the Sierra Club, said it’s likely that some of these plants would have shut down anyway.

“It’s up to each utility to determine whether compliance is financially responsible,” Smith said in an email. “We think utilities will continue moving toward renewable energy because the economics are more attractive than ever with passage of the Inflation Reduction Act.”

Coal industry advocates warned the new regulation would compromise the nation’s grid reliability by pushing electric utilities to fill the gulf left by coal plant retirements with renewable energy.

“EPA is acting on its longstanding threat to make it impossible for utilities to make decisions based on the merits of what keeps the lights on, forcing those utilities to make decisions solely based on the EPA’s environmental agenda," said Ashley Burke, a spokeswoman for the National Mining Association.

The administration plans to issue a final rule in 2024. Once it’s final, it will be up to states and the regional EPA offices to enforce it by incorporating the new standards into the power plants’ permits.