Three environmental groups have put the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on notice that they intend to sue the agency, alleging it has failed to regulate water pollution from the nation's electric utilities, including discharges into rivers and lakes from hundreds of coal-ash ponds.
Defenders of Wildlife, the Sierra Club and the Environmental Integrity Project on Monday filed their notice of intent to sue the EPA - the first step in a federal lawsuit - alleging that EPA officials should have tightened their rules on power plant water pollution as far back as 1982.
At issue are the heavy metals and other toxic pollutants found in effluent from ponds that store electric utilities' combustion wastes, such as ash, as well as scrubber sludge wastewater, and wastewater produced during the cleaning of cooling towers, said Jen Peterson, an attorney with the Environmental Integrity Project.
"Toxic discharges from power plants can threaten the health of local communities, contaminate ground and surface waters, and destroy aquatic life," said the Environmental Integrity Project executive director Eric Schaeffer, a former high-ranking EPA enforcement official. "EPA needs to stop kicking the can down the road and set a date for regulation."
He said the agency's data shows that coal plants discharge millions of pounds of toxic pollutants like arsenic, mercury, selenium and lead, each year. Yet existing federal rules, which have not been revised since 1982, set no national limits on metals discharges, which can get into local water supplies and contaminate waterways, he said.
The EPA responded by saying it will announce "the way forward on standards for water discharges from coal-fired plants" on Tuesday, according to EPA spokeswoman Adora Andy.
Dan Riedinger, spokesman for the Edison Electric Institute, which represents many of the nation's electric utilities, referred questions to one of the institute's attorneys, Kristy Bulleit, who said she was still reviewing the filing and could not comment on it.
An EPA survey made public earlier this month found that Indiana and Kentucky are the nation's top two states for coal ash ponds - and many of the many were built without the guidance of trained engineers.
The survey documented nearly 600 ash ponds across the U.S. - 53 in Indiana and 44 in Kentucky. It was conducted after a massive December coal ash spill in Tennessee.
The Clean Water Act requires anybody filing such lawsuits to give the EPA a 60-day notice.