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EPA seeks comment on efforts to delay effluent rule

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has taken official steps to postpone deadlines associated with the effluent guidelines for steam electric power plants.

Through a May 25 proposal signed by EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, the agency seeks to postpone compliance dates for the "new, and more stringent," technology and pretreatment requirements set under the effluent rule. The delay would apply to waste streams from fly ash transport water, bottom ash transport water, flue gas desulfurization wastewater, flue gas mercury control wastewater and gasification wastewater. The EPA will accept comment on the proposal, which would postpone the compliance dates until the EPA completes its review of the rule, for 30 days.

Published in the Federal Register in November 2015, the effluent rule placed restrictions on the discharge of wastewater from coal-fired and other steam electric power plants, setting limits on the release of toxic metals from generating facilities' wastewater for the first time since 1982.

The EPA is taking steps to review the rule in response to a March request for it to do so that came from the Utility Water Act Group. As explained in the proposal, the EPA said the group has raised "wide-ranging and sweeping objections to the rule" and presented new data that suggests certain types of coal-fired generators cannot meet the standards for flue gas desulfurization wastewater.

Pruitt announced his intent to embark on a review in April, sending letters to state governors informing them of the "flexibilities" available for permitting decisions related to power plant wastewater discharges as the agency considers the rule. Specifically, he noted that the effluent rule will only apply when implemented in a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit and that state permitting authorities have leeway to determine a date, between Nov. 1, 2018, and Dec. 31, 2023, for when the new rule applies to a facility. The rule does, however, have an inflexible deadline of Nov. 1, 2018, for pretreatment of wastewater from certain publicly owned facilities, the letter added.

In a statement announcing the proposal to postpone the rule's deadlines, Pruitt said the action would provide relief to industry burdened by the regulation.

"This proposed rule is one of nearly two dozen significant regulatory reform actions I have taken during my short time as EPA Administrator to protect the environment, jobs and affordable, reliable energy," Pruitt said. "Today's action, if finalized, will provide relief from the deadlines under the existing [effluent] rule while we carefully consider the next steps for this regulation."

Environmental groups are challenging Pruitt's actions to postpone the effluent guidelines in the courts. Earthjustice Attorney Thomas Cmar, who is involved in the legal challenge, said the latest announcement is "the same illegal stay" the EPA issued back in April and is similarly flawed and arbitrary.

"The mere fact that EPA is now seeking comment on the illegal stay doesn't make it any less illegal. Scott Pruitt lacks the authority to arbitrarily roll back public health protections with the stroke of a pen," Cmar said in a May 26 statement.

Outside of Cmar's challenge to the postponement, the effluent guidelines also were the subject of a legal challenge to certain aspects of the rule's requirements. The case has been placed on hold while the EPA conducts its review.