As we mark the beginning of fall, I look forward to some final days of paddling and wading into streams with my daughter near my home in West Virginia. But this fall also marks another important day for streams: on Wednesday, the Environmental Protection Agency is expected to issue new standards for how much pollution power plants dump into waterways across the U.S.
Every year, coal-fired power plants dump 5.5 billion pounds of contaminated wastewater directly into our rivers, lakes, and bays. In fact, coal plants are the largest source of toxic water pollution in the U.S., and yet - shockingly - the federal safeguards for coal plant water pollution are decades out of date and virtually nonexistent. If you're a parent like me who loves to watch your child play in the local stream or lake, this information is infuriating and scary. The same goes if you're a wildlife lover, or some who just enjoys the outdoors and believes our waterways should remain safe and healthy.
We've got plenty of examples of this massive pollution: In Waukegan, Illinois, residents have loudly expressed their opposition to the NRG coal plant on the shores of Lake Michigan, which is a major polluter.
According to the EPA's emissions database, the coal plant pollutes Lake Michigan with millions of gallons of wastewater that comes in contact with its coal ash waste and coal pile every day. In addition, its coal ash ponds, which sit along the lakeshore, leak dangerous chemicals such as arsenic and boron into the groundwater.
Wastewater from coal plants contains a toxic mess of heavy metals, arsenic, nutrients, and other nasty chemicals that are known to be harmful to humans and aquatic life. Exposure to these toxic chemicals through swimming in or drinking contaminated water or through eating contaminated fish has been linked to skin lesions, birth defects, cancer, and other health problems.
Fishing from Waukegan Harbor on Lake Michigan is an important business for the community, and many local residents regularly engage in subsistence fishing just downstream from the plant. Yet in a 2012 Fish Sampling Report conducted by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, all fish samples in Waukegan Harbor showed mercury contamination.
The former owner of the plant reported to the EPA that between 2002 and 2010 more than 1,000 pounds of chemicals listed on the Toxic Release Inventory were released into surface waters near the plant.
In addition, NRG Energy coal ash ponds in Waukegan, Joliet, Romeoville, and Pekin, Illinois, all have documented groundwater contamination violations.
And that's just one company's coal water pollution in one part of one state! For decades power plants nationwide have passed the cost and the burden of cleaning up their toxic mess onto downstream communities and residents. More than 23,000 miles of waterways are contaminated, including nearly 400 water bodies used as drinking water sources. Nearly 40 percent of all coal plants discharge toxic pollution within five miles of a downstream community's drinking water intake.
That's why it's important that the EPA enact the strongest water pollution standards for power plants. Strong standards to limit all power plant water pollution will improve the health of rivers and streams, making the water we drink and the fish we eat safer.
Strong, commonsense standards will also reduce public health risks by preventing drinking water contamination and save communities, Public Water Systems, and their consumers money.