Clean Air, Dirty Water

The NYT reports on how efforts to reduce air pollution have sometimes led to an increase in water pollution.

Even as a growing number of coal-burning power plants around the nation have moved to reduce their air emissions, many of them are creating another problem: water pollution. Power plants are the nation’s biggest producer of toxic waste, surpassing industries like plastic and paint manufacturing and chemical plants, according to a New York Times analysis of Environmental Protection Agency data.

Much power plant waste once went into the sky, but because of toughened air pollution laws, it now often goes into lakes and rivers, or into landfills that have leaked into nearby groundwater, say regulators and environmentalists.

Officials at the plant here in southwest Pennsylvania — named Hatfield’s Ferry — say it does not pose any health or environmental risks because they have installed equipment to limit the toxins the facility releases into the Monongahela River and elsewhere.

But as the number of scrubbers around the nation increases, environmentalists — including those in Pennsylvania — have become worried. The Environmental Protection Agency projects that by next year, roughly 50 percent of coal-generated electricity in the United States will come from plants that use scrubbers or similar technologies, creating vast new sources of wastewater.

Yet no federal regulations specifically govern the disposal of power plant discharges into waterways or landfills. Some regulators have used laws like the Clean Water Act to combat such pollution. But those laws can prove inadequate, say regulators, because they do not mandate limits on the most dangerous chemicals in power plant waste, like arsenic and lead.

One problem is the focus on scrubbers as a means of pollution control when, in some instances, fuel switching or other measures may to the trick. (Of course, for years federal regulations discouraged use of low-sulfur coal as a means of emission control, even though it could have produced greater emission reductions.  See Ackerman & Hassler, Clean Coal, Dirty Air (1981).)

This is not the only example of environmental regulations controlling pollution in one media while increasing it in another.  The federal oxygenate mandate for reformulated gas in the 1990 Clean Air Act resultedin widespread use of MTBE in gasoline, which has led to widespread groundwater contamination in many parts of the country.  Part of the kicker with MTBE, however, is that it did very little to reduce automotive emissions.  Indeed, the original mandate was less about pollution control than increasing markets for another oxygenate: ethanol.  [For those interested, I told the  story behind the mandate in “Clean Fuels, Dirty Air,” a chapter in Environmental Politics: Public Costs, Private Rewards (Greve & Smith eds. 1992) that was somewhat inspired by the Ackerman & Hassler work.  A shorter version is available in The Public Interest archives here.]