NRG’s Waukegan plant on the shore of Lake Michigan north of Chicago.
NRG’s Waukegan plant on the shore of Lake Michigan north of Chicago. Credit: ribarnica / Creative Commons

Illinois environmentalists testified before the Environmental Protection Agency this week, urging officials not to roll back an Obama-era regulation limiting discharge into waterways from steam powered electric plants.

Officials heard from Dulce Ortiz, a resident from Waukegan, Illinois, a city that is located 40 miles north of Chicago on Lake Michigan and home to a coal-fired power plant operated by NRG Energy.

“It is very concerning,” she said. “Waukegan’s NRG plant uses an antiquated discharge system, it releases toxins directly into Lake Michigan. As a resident and mother, I’m very concerned. Coal plants that dump into our waterway can cause long term health problems — especially in children and women that are pregnant—which I am.”

The EPA first finalized the rule change in September of 2015 in the last years of the Obama administration—updating an industry regulation that was last revised in 1982. But last April, Administrator Scott Pruitt ordered a stay on the regulation after it was opposed by industry and business groups, who said it would be burdensome and could mean plant closures.

“President Trump is putting Illinois families at risk,” she said. “We must find ways to protect our families. It greatly affects communities like mine, the community of Waukegan. We need the state of Illinois to step forward if the EPA won’t.”

EPA officials are now reconsidering the revisions to technology-based effluent limitations guideline, which would have reduced the amount of heavy metal and other waste that power plants nationwide could discharge by 1.4 billion pounds every year, according to the agency.

David Gaier, a senior spokesperson for NRG Energy, said that most of the Waukegan plant’s discharge is simply water that was taken from Lake Michigan and used to cool the generating equipment.

“No untreated coal ash water is ever discharged into the lake,” he said. “All other discharged water is treated and meets all U.S. EPA and Illinois EPA standards and meets all the [National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System] permit requirements and limits.”

In a filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, NRG Energy anticipated last year that it would cost the company $200 million over eight years to comply with the discharge regulation at 11 coal-fired power plants. The filing papers said: “The Company decides to invest capital for environmental controls based on: the certainty of regulations; evaluation of different technologies; options to convert to gas; and the expected economic returns on the capital.”

The EPA rule established new requirements for wastewater streams, and it would apply more stringent limits on the discharge of mercury, arsenic, selenium, and other pollutants from coal plants with a capacity greater than 50 megawatts. In fact, by 2023 coal plant operators would be required to upgrade their technology that does not discharge any fly ash water, bottom ash water, or other waste water into lakes and streams.

The Waukegan plant currently has two ash ponds with a liquid mixture of bottom ash and slag, according to an annual report. NRG has said that it monitors the groundwater around the Waukegan plant, and it lined its coal ash ponds in 2004 and 2005 to prevent groundwater contamination.

The regulation was intended to mitigate the risk of disposing coal ash, which include the “leaking of contaminants into ground water, blowing of contaminants into the air as dust, and the catastrophic failure of coal ash surface impoundments,” according to an EPA summary of the rule. Coal plants discharge many pollutants including lead, arsenic, mercury, and other heavy metals.

Without proper management, the contaminants can pollute ground water and drinking water, according to the agency. Recent coal ash spills in Kingston, Tennessee and Eden, North Carolina highlight the need for federal oversight.

The EPA estimates that the regulation could impact 12 percent of plants in the U.S., and the estimated cost of compliance for the rule would be $480 million per year, while the benefits associated with the rule are between $451 to $566 million.

Abi Dagit, a senior at Pekin Community High School in Pekin, Illinois, also testified. She is worried about pollution from two power plants—NRG Energy’s Powerton Station and the E.D. Edwards Plant, which is operated by a subsidiary of Dynegy—entering the Illinois River near her home. “We won’t be able to fish or swim anymore,” she said.

“If nothing is done right now these coal plants will continue to affect us in Pekin,” she said. “We are such a small town, but we have two coal plants that are 5 miles away from each other. A lot of people in my community think I’m trying to shut down the plants, it’s not that. They need to be held to standards”

The Utility Water Act Group listed Dynergy’s cost of compliance at $308 million in a petition calling for the EPA to reconsider its rule change.

NRG’s Gaier said that all power plant operators have to comply with “stringent permit conditions.” He added “As for swimming and fishing, Powerton station actually has its own cooling lake – much larger than a pond – that is clean enough for boating and recreational fishing and is stocked with fish by [Illinois Department of Natural Resources].”

Gaier said that NRG “has and will always comply with all applicable environmental laws and regulations.” The energy company will examine the issue again “once we have regulatory certainty.”