Expired Permits, Poor Monitoring Undermine Rules for Toxic Water Pollution from Coal Plants

New Report Ranks the “Top 10” Worst Polluters Among U.S. Coal-Fired Power Plants

Washington, D.C., August 11, 2016 –New federal regulations to reduce toxic water pollution from coal-fired power plants will be undermined by power plants that are badly behind in installing pollution control equipment, a staggering backlog of expired state permits, and weak monitoring, warns a report by the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP).

Coal plants are the single largest industrial source of toxic water pollution in the U.S., releasing more than five billion pounds of pollutants every year into rivers, lakes and small streams. These discharges include large quantities of arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead, mercury and selenium, which are hazardous in very small concentrations.

The new EIP report, “Toxic Wastewater from Coal Plants,” features charts that rank the top ten worst polluters in the U.S. for each of the toxic metals, based on self-reported data for 2015 recorded in the federal Toxic Release Inventory. (The “Top Ten” lists are copied at the bottom of this press release and are in Appendix F of the report.)

After decades of delays, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on November 3, 2015, finally published the first federal limits for these discharges, imposing regulations that should reduce toxic pollution from coal plants by 90 percent.

But the EIP’s report details how seriously behind many plants are in installing modern pollution controls and how much toxic waste they are still dumping into waterways.

Implementation of the important new federal regulations to protect public health could be delayed or derailed if EPA and the states don’t act quickly to update state permits for coal plants, require improved wastewater treatment systems, and step up monitoring of the facilities, according to the new EIP report.

“These limits on toxic water pollution from coal-fired power plants are already nearly 30 years overdue, ” said Eric Schaeffer, Executive Director of the Environmental Integrity Project. “Unless EPA and states move promptly to make these plants install modern wastewater treatment systems, the delay will stretch well into a fourth decade – and our streams, lakes and rivers will continue to be a dumping ground for some of the deadliest toxins known to man.”

To take effect, the new federal limits will have to be incorporated into updated state permits for the power plants. The federal Clean Water Act requires that permits be renewed at least once every five years. But more than half of the plants examined in the EIP report (52 percent, or 113 of 216) have state permits that are expired, and 37 percent (79 of 216) have permits that expired more than two years ago.

“This backlog of expired permits is a real problem that could lead to yet more delays in cleaning up our waterways,” Schaeffer said.

EPA has estimated that wastewater from the utility industry is contributing to the impairment of over 10,000 miles of waterways around the country, making them unsafe for drinking or fishing. The toxic chemicals in the discharges are a potential threat to human health, with arsenic being a known carcinogen, mercury damaging to brain development, and selenium a potential endocrine disruptor.

Based on reports that power companies have submitted to the federal Toxics Release Inventory, the following coal plants discharged more mercury, lead, or arsenic in 2015 than any other electric generating stations:

  • The Tennessee Valley Authority’s Cumberland power plant in Cumberland City, Tennessee, discharged 120 pounds of mercury to the Cumberland River in 2015. Based on federal standards, mercury levels as low as 77 parts per trillion can contaminate waterways and make fish unsafe to eat.
  • The Elmer Smith plant in Owensboro, Kentucky, released 1,112 pounds of lead to Blue Lake. Long-term exposure to lead at 2.5 parts per billion or more is toxic to aquatic life in freshwater.
  • The DTE Monroe Power Plant in Monroe, Michigan, dumped nearly a ton (1,800 pounds) of arsenic into Lake Erie, and the SWEPCO Pirkey Plant Plant in Harrison County, Texas, released the same amount into the Brady Branch Reservoir. Federal law requires public water systems to keep arsenic levels below 10 parts per billion to avoid cancer risks.

These figures are all based on self-reporting. A major problem that EPA and the states need to address is poor monitoring of the actual amount of water pollution discharged from power plants.

Without monitoring, pollution limits can’t be enforced. Yet nearly three quarters of the 216 coal plants examined in the EIP report did not monitor and report arsenic levels in their wastewater flows in 2015, either because their state permits did not require monitoring or because they failed to do it. About 60 percent of the plants did not monitor or report mercury levels, while nearly two thirds provided no such data for selenium.

Meanwhile, much of the monitoring data that is reported to the state and federal governments is incomplete and inaccurate – making accountability impossible.

“The states and EPA need to do a much better job of monitoring water pollution from coal plants and reporting it to the public,” Schaeffer said. “The public has an absolute right to know what toxic pollutants are being dumped into our waterways. And the new limits will be meaningless if they can’t be enforced, which requires more frequent and more accurate monitoring of these pollutants.”

The “Top Ten” charts for coal-fired power plants that reported the most mercury, lead and arsenic water pollution in 2015 to the federal Toxic Release Inventory are copied below (and found in Appendix F of the report).   Some coal plants do not report discharges of these pollutants to TRI, claiming to be exempt under EPA’s reporting rules.


Plant Name County State Waterway(s) Mercury (lbs)
TVA Cumberland Plant Stewart TN Cumberland River 120
Kentucky Utilities Co., Ghent Plant Carroll KY Ohio River 60
Duke Energy Progress, Asheville Plant Buncombe NC French Broad River, Powell Creek 51
Ohio Valley Electric Corp., Kyger Creek Gallia OH Ohio River, Kyger Creek 50
Duke Energy, Marshall Plant Catawba NC Catawba River 43
Dynegy Midwest Generation, Baldwin Energy Complex Randolph IL Kaskaskia River 34
South Carolina Generating Co., Williams Plant Berkeley SC Cooper River 28
Kentucky Power Co., Kammer/Mitchell Marshall WV Ohio River 28
DTE Monroe Plant Monroe MI Lake Erie 28
Indiana Kentucky Electric Corp., Clifty Creek Jefferson IN Ohio River 19



Plant Name County State Waterway(s) Lead (lbs)
Owensboro Municipal Utilities, Elmer Smith Daviess KY Blue Lake 1,112
Duke Energy, Miami Fort Pant Hamilton OH Ohio River 490
Kentucky Power Co., Kammer/Mitchell (WV) Marshall WV Ohio River 387
NRG Cheswick Power Plant Allegheny PA Allegheny River 387
AES/IPL Petersburg Pike IN White River 282
Duke Energy, Roxboro Power Plant Person NC Hyco Lake 260
SWEPCO Pirkey Harrison TX Brady Branch Reservoir 248
Interstate Power & Light Co. Ottumwa Wapello IA Des Moines River 170
Indiana Kentucky Electric Corp., Clifty Creek Jefferson IN Ohio River 155
PowerSouth Energy Cooperative, Inc., Charles R Lowman Power Plant Washington AL Tombigbee River 146



Plant Name County/Parrish State Waterway(s) Arsenic (lbs)
DTE Monroe Power Plant Monroe MI Lake Erie 1,800
SWEPCO Pirkey Plant Harrison TX Brady Branch Reservoir 1,800
AES/IPL Petersburg Pike IN White River 1,326
Dayton Power & Light Co., Killen Station Adams OH Ohio River 1,231
TVA Kingston Plant Roane TN Clinch River 870
Duke Energy, James E. Rogers Energy Complex Rutherford NC Broad River, Suck Creek 830
Cardinal Operating Co., Cardinal Power Plant Jefferson OH Blockhouse Hollow Run, Ohio River 790
Kentucky Utilities Co., Ghent Plant Carroll KY Ohio River 736
Gen-On Mid-Atlantic, LLC, Morgantown Generating Plant Charles MD Potomac River 703
AEP Conesville Power Plant Coshocton OH Muskingum River 690


These and other plants will likely have to install or upgrade wastewater treatment plants to reduce their pollution and comply with the new federal regulations.

The report, “Toxic Wastewater from Coal Plants,” can be found by clicking here.  For the appendices, click here.

The Environmental Integrity Project is a 14-year-old nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to the enforcement of environmental laws and holding polluters and governments accountable to protect human health.

Media contact: Tom Pelton, Environmental Integrity Project, (202) 888-2703 or tpelton@environmentalintegrity.org