Environment, Education, Energy: Policy to People

Can Coal Plants Dump Unlimited Amounts of Toxic Metals Into OK’s Waterways?

Grand Riverkeeper Earl Hatley stands at the edge of the GRDA power plant's property near Chouteau, Okla.

Logan Layden / StateImpact Oklahoma

Grand Riverkeeper Earl Hatley stands at the edge of the GRDA power plant's property near Chouteau, Okla.

A group of environmental organizations including Waterkeeper Alliance and the Sierra Club have released a report concluding there are “essentially no limits” on the amounts of toxic metals coal-fired power plants can discharge into Oklahoma’s waterways.

Jennifer Duggan was one of the lead authors of the study that found nearly 70 percent of plants nationwide have no limit on the amount of arsenic, boron, cadmium, mercury, and selenium they can dump into public waterways. And most don’t even have monitoring requirements for them.

“Clearly, there’s extensive data out there to show that — EPA itself acknowledges there are — billions of pounds of metals from this industry that are going into our waters every year,” Duggan says.

Just east of Chouteau, in Mayes County, there’s a massive coal-fired power plant. And just east of that is the Grand River, where a concrete pipe spews wastewater from the plant. Tracing the pipe’s route leads to a collection pond owned by the Grand River Dam Authority, the final stop for this water before being released.

First it was used in the coal-fired plant’s boiler and cooling system. Then it flowed through a number of other collection ponds meant to separate the clean water from the crud.

Earl Hatley, the Grand Riverkeeper and member of the Waterkeeper Alliance who keeps a close eye on the status of the waterways in northeast Oklahoma, says this filtering process is dangerously inadequate.

“Whatever they’re contributing, they’re contributing to a stream that is already impaired,” Hatley says. “There is no safe amount of lead in children’s blood.”

This part of the Grand River is classified as ‘impaired’ by the Oklahoma Water Resources Board because of low dissolved oxygen levels and lead. But it’s not certain the plant’s discharge is responsible for the water problems, and state water and environmental officials say It could be naturally occurring, or coming from farther upstream.

“The onus really is on the EPA for not regulating the industry,” Hatley says.

He’s upset because coal-plants don’t have to report to the EPA about the amounts of toxic metals they release into waterways. Study author Duggan says the federal standards for power plants haven’t been revised since 1982.

“And EPA never set any limits on mercury and other toxic pollution in scrubber wastewater and coal ash wastewater,” she said. “So the only federal limits in place for those waste streams are total suspended solids, pH, oil, and grease.”

The view of the GRDA coal-fired power plant from near its wastewater discharge point on the Grand River.

Logan Layden / StateImpact Oklahoma

The view of the GRDA coal-fired power plant from near its wastewater discharge point on the Grand River.

But don’t spit out that piece of catfish or yank the kids into the boat just yet. Duggan says the federal standards haven’t been revised. The Clean Water Act, which is the basis for regulating this discharge water, requires states to create their own standards. And while the feds don’t include toxic metals in its standards, Oklahoma does.

Shellie Chard-McClary with the state Department of Environmental Quality says her agency enforces standards set by Oklahoma’s water board.

The discharges from Oklahoma’s six coal-fired power plants are tested for toxic metals as part of the permitting process, and are retested every time the utilities’ permits expire. The minimum is every five years, she says.

“They’re doing an extensive list of sample analysis, including all of these metals,” she says. “None of the six power plants were discharging metals in levels that exceeded the criteria established by the water quality standard.”

But Duggan says testing every five years isn’t often enough.

“That is not the same as monthly monitoring. The other thing is too, those types of sample events, they’re kind of like a beauty contest. It doesn’t necessarily reflect normal operating conditions.”

The EPA is considering adding toxic metals to its dated list of standards, and requiring more monitoring. Of course, if utilities wanted to avoid the more-stringent regulations it would mean moving away from coal — to natural gas or renewables, for example.

Derek Smithee at the Oklahoma Water Resources Board says that’s the point of new federal regulations, and the environmental group’s toxic metals study.

“If your agenda is to be alarmist and get people incited, you write it with that perspective in mind,” Smithee says. “Yeah, there are substances in our waste stream, but it’s at such a low concentration as to not be an issue.”

The EPA does have to approve Oklahoma’s water quality standards and related permits, and so far, it’s sided with the state.

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  • Jean

    If citizens really knew what was going on the coal lants would close in favor of wind /solar…How come people do not know what the Riverkeepers say??

    • 918Environmentalist

      Unfortunately, Citizens United pretty much guarantees things like this will continue to happen. EPA doesn’t regulate these things because Congress will not allow them to – they can only do what Congress authorizes them to do.

  • Gern Blanson

    Jean, why waste so much electricity on newsok, tulsa world and here? Do you know windmills and transmission lines are made out of coal? It’s true! You have no understanding of what material makes a product, including metallurgic coal.

    • 918Environmentalist

      While metallurgical coal may be used in the steel processing, the turbines are not made from coal. Your point may be better recepted if you weren’t a jerk about it either.

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