StateImpact Oklahoma
8:43 am
Thu August 29, 2013

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
Credit Logan Layden / StateImpact Oklahoma

There’s a report out from a group of environmental organizations including Waterkeeper Alliance and the Sierra Club that says there are “essentially no limits” on the amounts toxic metals coal-fired power plants can dump into Oklahoma’s waterways.

Jennifer Duggan was one of the lead authors of the study that found nearly 70 percent of plants 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.

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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 on Grand River Dam Authority property, the final stop for this water before being released.

First it was used in the 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. For Earl Hatley, the process is dangerously inadequate.

He’s the Grand Riverkeeper, a member of the Waterkeeper Alliance who keeps a close eye on the status of the waterways in northeast Oklahoma.

“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 Resoures Board because of dissolved oxygen levels and lead. But it’s by no means certain the plant’s discharge is responsible. It could be naturally occurring, or coming from further upstream. The point is, we don’t know.

“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.

“The breakdown here is that those federal standards have not been — for power plants — have not been revised since 1982,” Duggan says. “And EPA never set any limits on mercury and other toxic pollution in scrubber wastewater and coal ash wastewater. So the only federal limits in place for those waste streams are total suspended solids, pH, oil, and grease.”

Truly terrifying!

The view of the GRDA coal-fired power plant from near its wastewater discharge point on the Grand River.
Credit Logan Layden / StateImpact Oklahoma

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

“The water quality standards are established by the Oklahoma Water Resources Board,” Shellie Chard-McClary with the state Department of Environmental Quality says. “We have six coal-fired power plants in Oklahoma. All of them test for metals as part of their permitting process and permit application, which means — at a minimum of every five years — they’re doing an extensive list of sample analysis, including all of these metals. None of the six power plants were discharging metals in levels that exceeded the criteria established by the water quality standard.”

Duggan says 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 looking to add toxic metals to its dated list of standards, and require more monitoring. Of course, getting around new regulations would mean getting off of coal — switching to natural gas or renewables. Derek Smithee at the Oklahoma Water Resources Board says that’s the point of new regulations — and the 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 of Oklahoma’s standards and permits, and so far, they agree.