The Biden administration will revise a Trump-era rule that allowed many coal-fired power plants to avoid or delay installing equipment that could prevent lead, selenium and other toxic pollutants from seeping into rivers and streams, the Environmental Protection Agency announced Monday.
Agency officials said that in the fall, they will formally propose a new rule strengthening standards overseeing how coal-fired power plants that use steam to generate electricity are permitted to dispose of contaminated wastewater. They hope to finalize the rule in 2024, after a required public comment period.
In the meantime, though, the E.P.A. will continue to enforce former President Donald J. Trump’s weaker standard and continue to defend it in court, where environmental groups have challenged its legality. Clean water advocates called the E.P.A. decision disappointing.
“In our mind, vacating the Trump rule is the fastest way to get to a world where you’re cracking down on this heavy metal pollution,” said Bret Hartl, government affairs director at the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group that was among a group of organizations that have mounted a legal challenge to Mr. Trump’s policy.
Mr. Hartl called the E.P.A.’s promise to impose stronger standards by the end of President Biden’s term “not particularly comforting,” adding, “Is it better than not doing anything? Yes. But is it the fastest way to ratchet down this pollution? No.”
Some power plants use coal, oil or natural gas to heat water in boilers, which generates steam that is then used to drive the turbines that are connected to electricity generators. But the plants generate wastewater laced with toxic pollutants like arsenic, selenium and lead that are linked to cancer, heart disease and developmental problems in young children, and that can leach into rivers, ponds and other waterways.
In 2015 the Obama administration required coal plants to upgrade their wastewater systems to treat the heavy metals. In 2020, the Trump administration reversed much of that policy as part of a sweeping effort to revitalize the declining coal industry, and gave electricity companies more time and flexibility to meet the standards.
Michael S. Regan, the E.P.A. administrator, said in a statement that the agency conducted a scientific assessment and concluded the agency can better protect against contaminated wastewater by keeping the weaker rule in place rather than discarding it altogether as it worked toward strengthening the policy. The E.P.A., he said, will “quickly move to strengthen water quality protections and further reduce power plant pollution.”
Michelle Bloodworth, president of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, which represents coal producers, noted in a statement that there are no details yet of how the E.P.A. plans to revise the Trump rule. She said she hoped the changes would not lead to more coal plant closures, which she said “would further jeopardize the reliability and resilience of our electricity supply.”
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