The Problem with Scrubbers

An Allegheny Energy coal-fired power plant in Pennsylvania has installed scrubbers—now chemical-containing wastewater is polluting the nearby Monongahela River.©

Cleaning up smokestacks may have an unintended environmental consequence—polluted water. So reports The New York Times in the article "Cleansing the Air at the Expense of Waterways." The article reveals the difficulties associated with the cleanup of toxins, and suggests that much-touted "quick fix" solutions will not be enough to reverse damage. Specifically, the piece looks at an Allegheny Energy coal-fired power plant in Pennsylvania, whose belching chimneys were responsible for both widespread respiratory diseases and acid range according to a lawsuit brought by five states, including New York and New Jersey.

Three years ago, the plant responded by installing "scrubbers." Scrubbers "spray water and chemicals through the plant’s chimneys, trapping more than 150,000 tons of pollutants each year." That sounds like an environmental victory—but there’s a caveat. The process has resulted in tens of thousands of gallons of chemical-containing wastewater being dumped into the Monongahela River… the source of drinking water for some 350,000 people.

Says nearby resident Philip Coleman: "It’s like they decided to spare us having to breathe in these poisons, but now we have to drink them instead."

This is not an isolated concern. Scrubbers are being installed at coal-powered plants across the country to counter air pollution concerns—by 2010, half the nation’s coal-generated electricity will come from plants with scrubbers, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. That means a huge increase in wastewater. And the Clean Water Act is not sufficient to counter the increased water-based toxins. Regulators say those laws "do not mandate limits on the most dangerous chemicals in power plant waste, like arsenic and lead."

Thus far, the EPA has stated that it plans to revise its standards for discharges from coal-fired power plants, standards initially set in 1982. But environmentalists say without new rules, our polluted waterways will pose a rising public health threat. Coal and power lobbyists, the article reports, are working hard to prevent new regulations—they donated $20 million to federal campaigns in 2008 alone, according to campaign finance reports, evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans.

Source: The New York Times.