OpEd

Story published: 10-01-2013 • Print ArticleE-mail Story to a Friend

Guidelines inspired by public service facilities


By Frances Lamberts

In our town, it is not uncommon for the departments delivering water-related services to receive high marks for effectiveness from state or federal agencies.

While a laudatory apraisal of the water department came from the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation recently, in an indirect way our wastewater services received praise from the Environmental Protection Agency, too.

This came in the context of the EPA’s proposal for new effluent limitation guidelines for steam electric power plants.

Comparing the latters’ pollution discharges into the nation’s waterways, under current, 30-year old standards, EPA’s findings on the effectiveness of small, community owned and operated sewage treatment works are encouraging.

The power plants unload 5.5 billion pounds of harmful effluents annually into “recipient waters.” Their discharges exceed up to 10 times those of other major industry sectors, for example petroleum refining or fertilizer manufacturing.

Their total toxic-pollution discharges are higher than the other nine top polluting industries’ the agency evaluated, combined.

With findings like these, the revision of the effluent guidelines for the electric power plants seems justified and needed, indeed.

The pollutants include many of the metals — manganese and boron, zinc, nickel, mercury, selenium, arsenic and more — that can cause cancer and other diseases in humans, organ abnormalities, decreased ability to swim or reproduce, and other damage to aquatic and terrestrial creatures affected through the food chain.

With “long residence times” in water and sediment, their harm potential can last for many years.

As far as 11,200 miles downstream from a power plant’s discharges, the pollutants not only can still be found, but their concentrations “continue to exceed the recommended water quality criteria for human health and acquatic wildlife.”

The new standards would reduce allowed discharge loads so that, for at least some 6,000-8,000 river miles below a plant, the pollutant concentrations in the receiving water will no longer exceed the recommended health criteria.

When the EPA compared wastewater discharge loads from the nation’s 16,000 publicly owned and operated treatment works, most of them small facilities like Jonesborough’s, to the 290 power plants’ pollutant contribution, it found an average of 250 times more boron and over 300 times more manganese, more than 80 times more selenium, 30 times more cadmium and nickel, 10 times more arsenic, 40 times more thallium.

Whereas for nutrient substances like nitrogen and phosphorous, the power plants’ effluents are similar to sewage treatment plants.’ The latter are greatly more effective at keeping the dangerous metal pollutants out of waterways. Thallium, for example, can cause developmental damage in humans and various kidney, liver, testicular-tissue and other harm with long term exposure.

Surely, the “big-boy” power plants should be held to do as well as their typically much smaller, local POTW brothers. The proposed effluent guidelines aim at that outcome.

For economic viability’s sake they may be short of ideal, but they will, says the EPA, “result in substantial environmental and human health improvements” for communities downstream of electric power plants.