Policy Summary

On Monday, August 31, the US EPA under the Trump administration announced that it has made revisions to a 2015 Obama era policy that places pollution restrictions on power plants that burn coal. The policy, known as the Effluent Limitations Guidelines (ELG) for coal-fired power plants, limits how much heavy metal toxins and other waterborne pollutants coal powered electric generation plants can release into local waters or wastewater facilities.

Explained very simply, a coal powered electric generation plant burns coal to heat water into steam, which in turn generates electricity. Two waste streams produced by this process are affected by the EPA’s revisions. The first pollution stream results from the toxic gases produced by the burning of coal, which are passed through treated water to remove the toxins and particulate matter before being released from the flue into the air. The water with the dissolved toxins and ash in it is known as Flue Gas Desulfurization (FGD) wastewater. The second waste stream affected by the EPA’s new revisions is known as Bottom Ash (BA) transport water, which is water used to carry away the toxic coal ash leftover in the bottom of the boiler tanks from the steaming process.

The pollution limits and guidelines for these two waste streams, as written by the Obama administration’s regulation in 2015, established the following:

  • Set the first ever limits on the amount of pollutants (arsenic, mercury, selenium, and nitrogen) power plants can dump into local water bodies via FGD wastewater. The policy set specific limits on how much of each toxin the FGD wastewater could contain before being released into the local water system. Power plants that needed to meet these compliance standards were required to adopt new best available technologies (BAT) to remove pollutants from the wastewater.
  • Required that all coal-fired power plants recycle 100% of their BA transport water (which contains coal ash and other suspended solids and toxic elements), instead of purging into local water bodies.
  • Required that compliance with the new guidelines and limitations be met by 2023.

*The Obama administration estimated $451-$566 million annually in monetary benefits to public health, environmental health, and economic health as a result of this regulation.

Today’s EPA under the Trump administration has revised these guidelines and limitations as follows:

  • The best available technologies required by the Obama administration’s 2015 guidelines for use in the removal of toxic pollutants from wastewater are no longer a requirement for coal-fired power plants. The EPA claims it has found “more affordable technologies that are capable of removing similar amounts of discharges.”
  • Coal-fired power plants are no longer required to recycle 100% of their BA transport water. Instead, the EPA has established a “pollutant discharge allowance,” where the amount of toxic water that a power plant can release into the local water system “will be determined on a case-by-case basis by the permitting authority, based on best professional judgement,” up to 10% of the plant’s daily BA wastewater.
  • Power plants that “cease coal combustion by 2028” may be exempt from the guidelines all together.
  • The case-by-case deadlines for complying with the regulations have been pushed back so that power plants that have failed to meet their already passed deadlines will not receive any penalty. The Obama guidelines required the necessary power plants to meet compliance by their next permit renewal, the earliest one being by November 1, 2018 and the last deadline being by January 2023. November 1, 2020 is now the earliest deadline for compliance — “in order to allow EPA time for reconsideration of the regulatory provisions.”

*The Trump administration estimates a $140 million annual cost reduction for power plants as a result of these revisions. 

The new guidelines set forth by the EPA essentially push back the deadline for coal-fired power plants to comply with reducing pollution; increases the amounts of pollutants allowed to be released by the power plants; allows the use of cheaper technologies that are less effective at removing pollutants from wastewater before it is released; and exempts some power plants all together from meeting compliance, as long as they plan to shut down or switch to natural gas by 2028.


 EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler and the coal industry both had praise for the regulation’s revisions. Wheeler claims, “Newer, more affordable pollution control technologies and flexibility on the regulation’s phase-in will reduce pollution and save jobs at the same time.” President of the National Mining Association, Rich Nolan, said of the new regulation, “The coal industry wants to be able to compete while also safeguarding important environmental protections – this rule shows that balance is possible.” The EPA also claims the revisions will reduce “toxic pollution by nearly 1 million pounds per year greater than what the Obama-era controls would have.”

Environmental groups, however, say the revisions allow the industry to “use cheaper, less effective treatment methods on polluted wastewater that puts waterways at risk.” The treatment technologies allowed by the EPA’s revisions use a shorter biological treatment process which leaves the resulting wastewater with a higher concentration of selenium than the technologies required under the previous guidelines. The EPA’s revisions, “sets a daily maximum limit on selenium at 76 micrograms per liter, more than three times the Obama-era limit of 23 micrograms per liter.”

Frank Holleman, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center wrote in an email to POWER Magazine, “With today’s rollback of clean water protections, the Trump EPA allows dirty coal-burning plants to dump more toxic substances into our rivers, lakes, and drinking reservoirs and exposes our communities to more cancer-causing pollution. The EPA itself has estimated that at least 30 percent of all toxic water pollution from all industries comes from these plants, and the technology to prevent and treat this pollution is widely available. The EPA is making it easier for the most polluting and worst run coal-fired plants to dump poisons into the waterways our communities depend upon.”

Thom Cmar, deputy managing attorney of the Earthjustice Coal Program, agrees. He says of the EPA’s revisions, “The Trump administration is once again jeopardizing people’s health to give coal power industry lobbyists what they want. This dangerous decision will have a big impact because dirty coal-fired power plants are by far the number one source of toxic chemicals in our water.” He argues, “The Trump administration’s rollback will be responsible for hundreds of thousands of pounds of pollutants contaminating sources of drinking water, lakes, rivers and streams every year. We will challenge this rule change in court.”

Resistance Resources


  • Behind nearly every major environmental win, you will find EarthJustice. EarthJustice’s legal work has saved irreplaceable wildlands, cleaned up the air we breathe, and fueled the rise of 100% clean energy. It has protected countless species on the brink of extinction, and secured long-overdue, historic limits on our nation’s worst polluting industries. https://earthjustice.org/

Southern Environmental Law Center

Environmental Defense Fund

  • One of the world’s largest environmental organizations and a 501(c)(3) non-profit. Preserving the natural systems on which all life depends. https://www.edf.org/

Natural Resources Defense Council

  • Works to safeguard the earth – its people, its plants and animals, and the natural systems on which all life depends. Combining the power of more than three million members and online activists with the expertise of some 700 scientists, lawyers, and policy advocates across the globe to ensure the rights of all people to the air, the water, and the wild. https://www.nrdc.org/

Sources Cited

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