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US proposes new water pollution limits for coal plants

WASHINGTON - US environmental regulators on Wednesday proposed tighter restrictions on coal-fired power plants, seeking to limit the spread of harmful pollution through wastewater.

The new rules by the administration of President Joe Biden would prevent nearly 584 million tons of pollutants from being released through coal plant wastewater each year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

"Coal-fired power plants discharge large volumes of wastewater into waterways such as ponds, lakes, rivers, and streams," the agency said -- and that water contains toxic metals and other pollutants, including mercury and arsenic.

"Exposure to these pollutants can harm people and ecosystems through contamination of drinking water sources, recreational waters, and aquatic life," the EPA added, while highlighting that low-income and minority populations are at disproportionate risk.

"EPA's proposed science-based limits will reduce water contamination from coal-fired power plants and help deliver clean air, clean water, and healthy land for all," EPA head Michael Regan said in a statement.

According to the proposal -- which would replace an existing rule issued under Biden's predecessor, Donald Trump -- the new regulations would not apply to power plants which intend to phase out coal by 2028.

The rules are now subject to a mandatory 60-day public comment period.

"Affordable technologies exist to eliminate nearly all of the toxic metals and other chemicals in power plant wastewater --and many plants are already using them," said Holly Bender, head of the Sierra Club environmental advocacy organization, in a statement.

According to the group, which welcomed the EPA announcement, coal-fired power plants are responsible for 30 percent of surface water pollution.

Most coal power plants in the United States were built in the 1970s and 1980s, according to the US Energy Information Administration.

A significant portion of them have closed in the last decade amid an increase in gas-fired power plants and the falling costs of renewable energies.

Coal accounted for 19.5 percent of US electricity production in 2022, compared with 37 percent just 10 years earlier. -- Agence France-Presse