EPA Requires U.S. Power Plants to Cut Mercury Emissions

WASHINGTON, DC, March 16, 2011 (ENS) – In response to a court deadline, today the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposed the first-ever national standards for mercury, arsenic, chromium, nickel and acid gases from power plants. Today’s proposal comes 11 years after the EPA announced it would set such limits for power plants.

The standards result from a February 2008 court decision that struck down the Bush administration’s mercury rule. In the case brought by the Environmental Defense Fund, the National Wildlife Federation and the Sierra Club, a federal appeals court ruled that the EPA did not have the authority to exempt power plants from the Clean Air Act.

In October 2009, the EPA entered into a consent decree that required a proposal to be signed by March 16, 2011, and a final rule to be completed by November 2011.

“Today’s proposal to regulate these toxic air pollutants illustrates a commitment by the EPA to follow the law and protect public health,” said Earthjustice attorney James Pew, who argued the case in appeals court. “Every year, thousands of Americans die as a result of dirty air and unregulated pollution, and for years this tragedy has been ignored.”

The proposed power plant mercury and air toxics standards are expected to prevent 91 percent of mercury in coal from being emitted. The standards reduce acid gases by 91 percent, sulfur dioxide by 55 percent and particulate matter by 30 percent.

They will require many power plants to install widely available, proven pollution control technologies and will prevent as many as 17,000 premature deaths and 11,000 heart attacks a year, according to figures today released by the EPA.

“Today’s announcement is 20 years in the making, and is a significant milestone in the Clean Air Act’s already unprecedented record of ensuring our children are protected from the damaging effects of toxic air pollution,” said EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson. “With the help of existing technologies, we will be able to take reasonable steps that will provide dramatic protections to our children and loved ones, preventing premature deaths, heart attacks, and asthma attacks.”

EPA estimates there are 1,350 coal-fired and oil-fired units at 525 power plants that will be affected by the proposal. Currently, more than half of all U.S. coal-fired power plants already deploy the pollution control technologies that allow them to meet these standards.

Cinergy’s Zimmer coal-fired power plant in Moscow, Ohio is the largest single-unit fossil generating unit ever built (Photo by Power)

Once final, these standards will ensure the remaining coal-fired plants, roughly 44 percent, take similar steps to decrease these pollutants.

More than 20 years ago, the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments mandated that EPA require control of toxic air pollutants including mercury. Since then, EPA has taken action to reduce mercury emissions from many high-emitting sources, but there is still no national standard for mercury emissions from power plants.

Today’s announcement comes 11 years after EPA announced it would set such limits for power plants, and following a February 2008 court decision that struck down the Bush administration’s mercury rule.

In October 2009, the EPA entered into a consent decree that required a proposal to be signed by March 16, 2011, and a final rule to be completed by November 2011.

Power plants are the largest remaining source of several toxic air pollutants, Jackson explains, responsible for half of mercury and more than half of acid gas emissions in the United States.

Toxic air pollutants like mercury from coal-fired and oil-fired power plants have been shown to cause neurological damage, including lower IQ, in children exposed in the womb and during early development.

The newly proposed standards would provide particular health benefits for children, preventing 120,000 cases of childhood asthma symptoms and about 11,000 fewer cases of acute bronchitis among children each year, according to the EPA.

The proposed standards would also avert more than 12,000 emergency room visits and hospital admissions and 850,000 fewer days of work missed due to illness, the agency said.

The standards also address emissions of other toxic metals linked with cancer such as arsenic, chromium and nickel. Mercury and many of the other toxic pollutants also damage the environment and pollute lakes, streams, and fish.

In addition, cutting these toxic pollutants also reduces fine particle pollution, which causes premature death, heart disease, workdays lost to illness and asthma.

“The American Lung Association applauds the release of this sensible public health measure,” Charles Connor, president and CEO of the American Lung Association. “When it becomes final, the cleanup rule that the EPA is putting forward today will save lives, protect the health of millions of Americans and finally bring about an action that is 20 years overdue. This must happen.”

John Walke of the Natural Resources Defense Council called the proposed standards, “The most important actions to clean up air pollution from dirty coal-burning power plants since the Clean Air Act was last updated in 1990.”

But the National Association of Manufacturers called the proposed standards “another example of overregulation.”

NAM Senior Vice President for Policy and Government Relations Aric Newhouse said, “We are disappointed to see the EPA roll out yet another proposed rule that has a significant impact on manufacturers.”

Newhouse called it, “an excessive regulation that will cost billions of dollars, lead to higher electricity prices and cause significant job losses.”

“In addition,” he said, “electric system reliability could be compromised by coal retirements and new environmental construction projects caused by this proposed rule and other EPA regulations. Stringent, unrealistic regulations such as these will curb the recent economic growth we have seen.”

EPA estimates that the cost to the industry will be approximately $11 billion annually, while the benefits to American taxpayers will be between $60 and 140 billion per year.

For every dollar spent to reduce pollution from power plants, the American public and American businesses will see up to $13 in health and economic benefits, the agency said today.

Jackson says the new standards will create jobs by increasing demand for pollution control technology that is already being produced by American companies.

“New workers will be needed to install, operate and maintain pollution control technology. We estimate these first-ever standards will support 31,000 construction jobs and 9,000 long-term utility jobs,” Jackson wrote on the White House blog today.

The updated standards will provide a first-ever level playing field for all power plants across the country, ensure that they play by the same rules, and provide more certainty to business, the EPA maintains.

Jackson says the proposed mercury and air toxics standards are in keeping with President Barack Obama’s executive order on regulatory reform because they are based on the latest data and provide industry flexibility in implementation through a phased-in approach and use of already existing technologies.

The proposed rule provides up to four years for facilities to meet the standards.

A 60-day public comment process will start when the rule is published in the Federal Register. EPA also will hold public hearings on this proposed rule.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2011. All rights reserved.