Protecting our Waterways from Toxic Coal Plant Pollution

by Joram Kluge, Clean Energy Intern

Did you know coal plants are the number one source of toxic water pollution in the U.S?  Yet, 4 out of 5 coal plants nationwide have no limits on the amount of toxic heavy metals they can dump into our waterways, polluting our drinking water, fishing areas, and local rivers.

In response to EPA’s proposed water pollution standards for power plants (effluent limit guidelines), the Sierra Club and coalition partners released Closing the Floodgates, a report assessing 386 coal plants with regard to their water pollution last month. The report finds that the Clean Water Act has been almost universally ignored by state agencies and power companies. For decades our American waterways have been used as unregulated, private waste dumps by coal power companies. In nearly 70% of all cases, coal plants are legally allowed to dump unlimited amounts of toxic metals, among them arsenic, cadmium and mercury, into public waters. Only 63% of these plants are even required to monitor and report their discharges of toxic metals. That leaves 100 completely unregulated coal plants, and an additional 93 plants which operate under expired permits nationwide.

To spread awareness about this crucial issue, the Sierra Club together with the Izaak Walton League -McCabe Chapter and the League of Women Voters Duluth held a media event in Duluth highlighting Minnesota’s coal plants. Only two coal plants in Minnesota have any permit limits for the amount of toxic metals they release into waterways. Despite their permit, these plants are still allowed to discharge unlimited amounts of toxic metals like arsenic, cadmium, boron and selenium. Minnesota Power’s Clay Boswell Plant discharges toxic coal wastewater into Blackwater Lake, further polluting an already impaired lake. Additionally, not a single Minnesota coal power plant is required to monitor and report discharges of toxic metals to federal authorities.

Communities near coal-fired power plants suffer disproportionately from air and water pollution, but polluted air and water spreads throughout the country and impacts all of us. Exposure to these dangerous chemicals can lead to birth defects, cancer and even death.  For example, some fish, like walleye and tuna, contain so much mercury that kids and women should limit consumption.

However, we do not need to live with these dangers. The problem is entirely man made and absolutely controllable and reversible. Wastewater treatment technologies can drastically reduce or eliminate discharges of toxic pollutants and are already used in some power plants. It is absolutely vital for us to support the EPA in their proposal to limit water pollution, not only to protect our own health and environment, but also that of future generations.

My own generation currently has to live with the effects of pollution. Our climate is out of balance and the pollution of natural resources restricts us in pursuing normal lives. We eat poisoned fish and poison our bodies, we breathe polluted air and we suffer from asthma, we drink water, rich in toxic metals and consequently die of cancer. Water pollution affects all of us and requires all of us to take action.

If you want to support the EPA’s proposal for more stringent water pollution standards, please submit a public comment. To find out what fish are safe to eat for you and your family, check this mercury guide from the Minnesota Department of Health. If you are interested in learning more about water pollution , you can download the Sierra Club’s report here, and sign up to volunteer with the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign.

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