Regulatory Drivers

Several legislative acts are in place that could potentially impact water quality requirements and water use for fossil energy production, as well as electricity generation. These acts regulate pollutant discharge and water intake directly and indirectly. Under regulations established by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), these acts serve to maintain and improve the nation's water resources for uses including but not limited to agricultural, industrial, nutritional, and recreational purposes.

The Clean Water Act - The Federal Water Pollution Control Act, more commonly known as the Clean Water Act, provides for the regulation of discharges to the nation's surface waters. To address pollution, the act specifies that the discharge of any pollutant by any person is unlawful except when in compliance with applicable permitting requirements. Initial emphasis was placed on point source pollutant discharge, but 1987 amendments authorized measures to address non-point source discharges, including stormwater runoff from industrial facilities. Permits are issued under the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES), which designates the highest level of water pollution or lowest acceptable standards for water discharges. NPDES permits are typically administered by the individual states. With EPA approval, the states may implement standards more stringent than federal water quality standards but not less stringent. Certain sections of the Act are particularly applicable to water issues related to power generation. These include:

  • CWA §303 Water Quality Standards and Implementation Plans - An issue receiving significant attention recently is Section 303 of the Clean Water Act - the Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) program. Under the program, states identify impaired water bodies (i.e., those not meeting the water quality standards (WQSs) that the states set). The states are then responsible for establishing the maximum amount of a pollutant, or the TMDL, that the water body may receive to meet the WQSs. Further, the TMDL program requires that the state allocate the reductions of a particular pollutant amount to the pollutant sources affecting the water body. States will have 10 years to develop TMDLs and implement plans for improving the quality of the affected waters. [This is analogous to the state implementation plans (SIPs) that states are required to develop under Section 110 of the Clean Air Act.]
  • The new TMDL requirements will focus greater emphasis on non-point sources of pollutants in terms of the development of the SIPs to restore polluted waters. Atmospheric deposition is considered a non-point pollution source and includes emissions from power generation. Emissions of primary concern are sulfur, nitrogen, and mercury. It is quite possible that under the revised TMDL program, plans to restore the water quality of a polluted lake or stream will include calls for further controls on emissions from electric-utility boilers.
  • CWA §316(b) Cooling Water Intake Structures - Section 316(b) is arguably the most urgent issue facing steam-turbine-electric-generating units over the next several years. Section 316(b) requires that the location, design, construction, and capacity of cooling water intake structures reflect the best technology available for minimizing adverse environmental impact and uniquely applies to the intake of water and not the discharge. The regulations are constructed to capture 99.99 percent of the electric utility industry. Under the proposed changes to Section 316(b), all new steam-electric-power-generating systems would have to install closed-cycle-cooling systems.

    EPA is conducting the rulemaking process in three phases. Phase I applies directly to all new facilities that employ a cooling water intake structure. Phase I regulations were proposed in July 2000 with final action required in November 2001. Proposed Phase II regulations, applicable to existing utilities and non-utility power producers that employ a cooling water intake structure, are required in February 2002 and final action by August 2003. If existing power plants were required to make modifications to their once-through cooling water systems, including possible conversions to dry-cooling systems or seasonal restrictions on operations, costs could be extremely high, with some units likely to shut down.

The Safe Drinking Water Act - The Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) requires that EPA establish health-based regulations to protect humans from contaminants in national drinking water. The act requires EPA to set national drinking water standards and create a joint federal-state system to ensure compliance. While the provisions of the SDWA apply directly to public water systems in each state, the Act is relevant to electric power generation because waste streams may contain detectable levels of elements or compounds that have established drinking water standards. Additionally, regulations under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act for ground water contamination resulting from the disposal of solid wastes are tied to the contaminant levels established under the SDWA. Furthermore, atmospheric deposition of air emissions may result in increased ambient contaminant levels in surface waters. Emissions (air, water, and solid waste) from power generation may hinder the ability of a public water system to meet the federal or state standards and will likely result in additional regulation of power plant emissions.