The Trump administration’s latest move to ease regulatory requirements on the nation’s coal-burning power plants is expected to have limited impact in the Chesapeake Bay region because several facilities discharging toxic pollution have already agreed to clean up or decided to shut down their operations.

But environmental groups and at least one state regulator are still worried that the weaker standards set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency could lead to more toxics in the region’s waterways over the next several years.

The EPA announced in late August that it had revised a 2015 Obama era regulation to give coal plants more leeway and more time to curtail discharges of toxic metals such as arsenic, mercury, and selenium into lakes, streams, and rivers.

Agency officials said the new rule would save the power industry $140 million a year while resulting in a greater cleanup. The revisions do so by “leveraging newer, more affordable pollution control technologies and taking a flexible, phased-in implementation approach,” according to EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler.

Critics, though, said the EPA has carved some big loopholes in the Obama rule that will allow plants to continue and even increase their discharges of toxic contaminants.

“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,” said Frank Holleman, senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center.

The EPA’s revision of its Effluent Limitations Guidelines, as the discharge rule is called, is among dozens of regulatory holdups or rollbacks initiated by the Trump administration, many of which have been challenged in court. This one is significant, Holleman said, because by the EPA’s own estimate at least 30% of all by toxic water pollution discharged by industries comes from coal-fired power plants. The technology to prevent and treat the toxic discharges is “widely available,” he said.

The 2015 rule, imposed after the EPA was sued by several environmental groups, required coal plants to treat toxic contaminants in wastewater generated when they wash out their air pollution scrubbers. It also required plants to stop discharging wastewater that contains ash from coal-burning, which also contains toxins.

The original rule would have required most plants to install water-pollution controls by 2020. But the EPA put it on hold in 2017, saying it intended to revise it.

“If EPA were following the law, the coal industry would be close to eliminating its toxic wastewater by now,” said Abel Russ, senior attorney for the Environmental Integrity Project. 

Ben Grumbles, secretary of the Maryland Department of the Environment, said the new rule is actually more stringent “in a few ways,” such as the limits it places on mercury and nutrient discharges.

But it significantly relaxes discharge limits on selenium, which Grumbles called a “big concern.” Selenium in water can harm fish and wildlife. In humans, it can cause neurological and respiratory problems and is considered a probable carcinogen.

Grumbles said his biggest concern is that the new rule delays compliance five years to as late as 2028. “That matters for local waters and the Bay,” he said.

Still, the EPA’s action has less impact in the Bay watershed now than it might have had earlier. Grumbles and others noted that several big coal plants have already shut down or announced plans to do so in the next few years.

GenOn, a Texas-based owner of three coal plants in Maryland, has shut down one at Dickerson on the Potomac River in Montgomery County and announced plans to close another at Chalk Point on the Patuxent River in Prince George’s County.

Those actions came after Maryland regulators ordered the state’s coal plants to meet the discharge limits in the EPA’s 2015 rule — though they offered to delay the deadline to 2023 if the plants volunteered to meet even lower limits.

For its Morgantown plant on the Potomac River in Charles County, GenOn opted to comply with the toxic limits set in its renewed discharge permit.

Talen Energy, another Texas company, has indicated plans to do likewise with a pair of plants outside Baltimore on the Patapsco River — Brandon Shores and H.?A. Wagner — though possibly delaying compliance to 2023.

A Chicago-based company has shut down coal units at another plant, C.?P. Crane, near the mouth of the Gunpowder River north of Baltimore.

The revised EPA rule leaves it up to states to set compliance deadlines. But it also opens the door for plants that had to meet stricter limits under the 2015 rule to petition state regulators to relax them.

David Smedick, the coordinator of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign in Maryland, Delaware, and the District of Columbia, said activists would be on guard against any effort by plant owners to take advantage of the new guidelines and roll back the requirements imposed on them

“The new Trump rollback does not entitle GenOn or Talen … to new permits with the weaker limits or delayed compliance deadlines,” Smedick said.

In Pennsylvania, water pollution permits for all of the state’s coal-fired power plants had already been updated to include the requirements of the Obama era rule.

That happened after the Sierra Club sued the state Department of Environmental Protection because most of the permits had long since expired and were overdue for updating.

“That said, any plant that hasn’t already installed controls to comply with the 2015 limits could apply to amend their permit with the new weaker limits,” according to Tom Schuster, clean energy program director for the Sierra Club’s Pennsylvania chapter. “But it would be subject to public notice and comment, and we would aggressively fight the change.”

There are six large, conventional coal plants left in Pennsylvania, two of which are in the Bay watershed, Schuster noted. Of those, Schuster said, Brunner Island on the Susquehanna River near Harrisburg, also owned by Talen, is scheduled to stop burning coal by 2028. There are 10 smaller plants that mainly burn coal mine waste, he said, but they don’t discharge much.

Virginia, likewise, has six coal-fired power plants left operating, but a new law enacted this year committing the state to 100% renewable power by 2024 is expected to force the closure of most. Dominion Energy has already committed to retiring the coal-fired units at its Chesterfield plant on the James River by the end of 2024. The company also has retrofitted the facility’s bottom ash system to halt discharges, according to spokesman Jeremy Slayton.

Dominion’s spokesman said the company’s Mt. Storm plant, in West Virginia, recycles the water used in its air pollution control system so that none is discharged into a lake that drains to the North Branch of the Potomac River. There are plans to retrofit the bottom ash cleanout system to meet the rules, with a deadline to be set by state regulators, Slayton said.

Timothy Wheeler, Bay Journal Media

Tim Wheeler is the Bay Journal's associate editor and senior writer, based in Maryland. You can reach him at 410-409-3469 or

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