For years, coal-fired power plants in our region have spewed contaminated water into western Pennsylvania’s rivers and streams. Now two organizations have taken on the polluters with a recent settlement.

PennFuture, a nonprofit aimed at enforcing and driving environmental laws, and the Sierra Club, as well as the Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper, recently filed a settlement compelling the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection to force 10 coal-fired power plants throughout the state to update their expired water permits.

“The settlement does not obtain everything we seek in one fell swoop, but it has teeth in the sense that the state has committed to issuing all permits in draft by specific dates,” says George Jugovic, Jr., PennFuture’s VP of legal affairs.

As part of the settlement, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection agreed to a schedule to update and draft new water permits over the course of the year for all the coal plants, with a goal of finalizing them by March 2019.

The federal Clean Water Act mandates that water permits be updated every five years to ensure they reflect new pollution standards and changing conditions in the rivers or receiving waters.

It also requires plants to adopt updated technologies to reduce pollution, particularly safer methods of dealing with highly toxic ash created by the burning of coal and removing particulate matter from the scrubbers used to clean the insides of boilers.

But the plants named in the suit have long-expired permits, some issued before 2000.

“This is a problem for a variety of reasons,” says Patrick Genter, a campaign representative for the Chesapeake Bay at the Sierra Club, whose organization joined with PennFuture to file the suit last summer.

For one, as a PennFuture press release states, coal-fired power plants are one of the largest sources of water pollution in the state. They discharge toxins such as arsenic, boron, cadmium, chromium, lead, mercury and selenium, which can impact public health over the short and long term.

Then there’s the economic impact: “Power plants that do not internalize the true cost of burning dirty fuel impose costs on the public,” says Jugovic. “In the form of polluted streams, which harm public recreational opportunities, and public health, in the form of increased heart attacks and respiratory diseases. These costs are both real and quantifiable, and they should not be born by the public.”

Genter points out that municipal drinking water providers are left with the challenge of treating the contaminated water.

How does this concern Pittsburgh, and how can you help?

Some of the problem plants are located in the region and sit along main waterways. The Cheswick Generating Station, located on the Allegheny River in Springdale, has had an expired permit since 2012. Genter claims it’s the fourth worst plant in the country for lead discharge, an alarming detail in light of Pittsburgh’s water troubles.

“When Pittsburgh has gone through a drinking water lead crisis over the past several years, that plant has continued to operate with outdated controls,” he adds. “Certainly, that’s not the cause of the drinking water crisis in Pittsburgh, but it’s certainly a contributing factor.”

There’s also the Bruce Mansfield Power Plant in Beaver County, which hasn’t renewed its permit since 2011.

Map showing the locations of the coal-fired plants with expired permits.

But while Genter and Jugovic agree that the settlement is a step in the right direction, there are still hurdles to overcome.

“This is, unfortunately, a really difficult situation,” he says, adding that the Clean Water Act is limited in its power to force the government to issue renewal permits. “These types of cases are very difficult to win.”

There are also challenges from the federal level, especially from the current Trump administration, which Genter says “has done everything they can to roll back environmental protections designed to impact those most vulnerable communities across this country.”

He believes one reason the permit updates were delayed was because the Environmental Protection Agency, under Scott Pruitt, put a stay on the ELG Rule, which set guidelines and standards for various toxins coming out of steam electric power plants starting in November 2015 (the stay has since been lifted).

“We saw state authorities all across the country not wanting to issue renewal permits because they weren’t sure if they had the legal backing of the federal government to do so with the updated standards,” says Genter. “They were worried about getting sued.”

Fortunately, the permit situation offers the public an opportunity to pressure state representatives to regulate polluters. As part of the process, PennFuture and the Sierra Club would review the permits and give feedback during the public comment period, which allows citizens in the region to raise their concerns. Genter says a hearing for the Cheswick Generating Station is expected in early March.

“It’s a good opportunity, especially during an election year, for people to voice their opinions publicly and consistently at all these meetings about how they think these plants should be permitted,” says Genter. “This does not fix everything. What this does do is set the stage for a year of committed activism, committed presence and committed advocacy to push our political leaders and regulators assigned by those leaders to fulfill our wishes and giving us the clean water we’re guaranteed under the Pennsylvania constitution.”

He also encourages people to follow the Allegheny Group of the Sierra Club to stay updated on the permits.

Jugovic believes that for any positive changes to occur, the public “first needs to care, they then need to educate themselves, and then they are in a position to take action.” He understands that, while not everyone will have the ability to review water permits for coal power plants and provide comments, they can still make their voices heard and opinions known to local representatives and others responsible, such as the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.

“They need to let their representatives know that clean water matters, and that they want those responsible for polluting those streams to protect them for this and future generations,” says Jugovic.