All across the nation, coal-burning power plants are cleaning up their act by installing high-tech scrubbers that clean the plant’s emissions, but this new technology has one small caveat – it leaves the water as dirty as the emitted air used to be, according to a recent New York Times article.

That’s because the scrubbers require large amounts of water to keep the air squeaky clean. This contaminated water is then most often dumped into the nearest waterway, much to the detriment of nearby residents.

“It’s like they decided to spare us having to breathe in these poisons, but now we have to drink them instead,” said Philip Coleman, who lives about 15 miles from Allegheny Energy, a power plant in Pennsylvania. “We can’t escape.”

Allegheny’s scrubbers keep about 150,000 tons of pollutants from getting into the air each year, a noble environmental feat, except that many of the pollutants end up in wastewater discharged in the nearby Monongahela River, which provides drinking water to 350,000 people and flows into Pittsburgh.

Intense scrutiny towards power plant emissions in the past few years has inspired a growing number of plants to install scrubbers to clean chemicals out of the air, but that waste has to go somewhere, and a lot of it ends up in the water.

Plant officials insist that the discharged wastewater is safe, but since the EPA estimates that about 50 percent of coal-generated electricity in the next year will come from plants that use these scrubbers, the U.S. is looking at a vast new source of wastewater pollution.

And, “no federal regulations specifically govern the disposal of power plant discharges into waterways or landfills,” according to the Times, though some have been able to use the Clean Water Act to force polluters to clean up their mess.

In addition, most violators are never fined, and even when polluting plants do get caught red-handed, the costs are minimal.

For example, Hatfield’s Ferry, a power plant in southwest Pennsylvania, has violated the Clean Water Act 33 times since 2006, crimes for which it has had to pay only $26,000 — not much when compared to that same period’s earnings, where the plant’s parent company earned $1.1 billion.

The Times report also found that many other plants with scrubbers often release wastewater that contains high concentrations of dissolved arsenic, barium, boron, iron, manganese, cadmium, magnesium and other heavy metals, which have been shown to contribute to a whole host of diseases.

The EPA claims that it’s planning to revise water discharge standards for coal-fired power plants, but for now there are no new rules on power plant waste, thanks in part to lobbyists and public officials who have worked to block the effort against stricter controls.

In the meantime, power plants continue to pollute waterways.  

“Americans want cheap electricity, but those of us who live around power plants are the ones who have to pay for it,” said Coleman, the resident who lives near Allegheny Energy. “It’s like being in the third world.”

Want more info? Check out the rest of the Times’ Toxic Water series