Environmentalists are angry that the EPA is keeping a Trump-era electric power plant effluent rule in place while it revises the rule over the next year.
“We aren’t seeing in this announcement a clear commitment from EPA to fix the things that need fixing and to fix them quickly,” including continued bromide and selenium pollution from power plants, said Leslie Griffith, an attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center.
The Environmental Protection Agency announced Monday it’s kicking off a supplemental rulemaking that will update and strengthen the 2020 Steam Electric Reconsideraton Rule, which took effect in October.
The rule revised federal limits on toxic metals in wastewater discharged from electric power plants put in place by the Obama administration in 2015.
EPA expects to publish a proposed rule in 2022, but will implement both the 2015 and 2020 rules during the years-long process to finalize and implement the rule, and then see power companies upgrade systems to halt the pollution, environmental groups say.
“This is an unconscionable giveaway to the coal industry that will allow our streams and rivers to be poisoned with heavy metal toxins” until the new rule is finalized, said Brett Hartl, government affairs director at the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the groups that sued in 2020 to stop the rule.
But EPA conducted a review of the 2020 rule and determined that keeping existing regulations in place is the most prudent move.
Keeping the Trump rule in place “would ensure that water resources are protected now, while we quickly move to strengthen water quality protections and further reduce power plant pollution that can contain toxic metals such as mercury, arsenic, and selenium,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said in a statement.
The 2020 rule made modifications only to some aspects of the 2015 rule, so requirements from both rules remain in effect during the rulemaking, agency spokesman Timothy Carroll said.
The approach locks in place the 2020’s pollutant reductions during the rulemaking while avoiding spending resources on litigation, Carroll said.
The Utility Water Act Group, an unincorporated consortium of electric power generating companies that intervened in litigation challenging the 2020 rule, didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
The rulemaking is a “welcome first step” toward halting toxic discharges into waterways and closing loopholes that the 2020 rule injected in the 2015 limits, said Thomas Cmar, an attorney for Altman Newman Co. LPA representing environmental groups.
But he acknowledged the EPA’s decision to keep the 2020 rule in place will allow toxic discharges to continue for years while the rulemaking unfolds.
“We are concerned that it does not sound like they are acting with necessary urgency,” Cmar said, referring to the EPA. “Power plants will continue to dump hundreds of millions of gallons of toxic water in the meantime.”
Environmental and civil rights groups in 2020 sued the EPA in separate lawsuits aiming to halt the Trump rule.
As part of the rulemaking, the EPA is requesting that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit continue to hold in abeyance two consolidated lawsuits filed by environmental and civil rights groups last year challenging the Trump rule.
The Fourth Circuit in June initially held the cases in abeyance until the EPA completed its review of the Trump rule. The review is now complete and EPA is proceeding with the rulemaking.