EPA Announces Power Plant Mercury Standards

by | Mar 17, 2011

National standards on power plants’ emissions of mercury, arsenic and several other toxic air pollutants were announced yesterday by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

These proposed standards would require many power plants to install widely available pollution control technologies to cut harmful emissions of mercury, arsenic, chromium, nickel and acid gases. They would prevent 91 percent of mercury from coal-fired plants from being released into the air, the EPA said.

As many as 17,000 premature deaths and 11,000 heart attacks a year would be prevented and 120,000 cases of childhood asthma symptoms and 11,000 cases of acute bronchitis in children could be avoided each year by the new regulations, according to the agency.

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

But a group of energy utility companies said in a report this week that the proposals proposed an “extraordinary threat” to the sector. “The EPA admits the pending proposal will cost at least $10 billion, making it one of the most expensive rules in the history of the agency,” the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council said, according to the New York Times.

“Adaptation to all the proposed rules constitutes an extraordinary threat to the power sector — particularly the half of U.S. electricity derived from coal-fired generation,” the group added.

Despite the costs to the sector, the agency estimates that for every dollar spent to reduce pollution from power plants, the American public and American businesses will see between $5 and $13 in health and economic benefits.

The history of yesterday’s announcement stretches all the way back to the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments that mandated the EPA control toxic air pollutants including mercury. But until yesterday, the agency had never instigated a national standard for mercury emissions from power plants.

The Clinton administration declared that power plants should be subject to controls under the Clean Air Act, but the Bush administration reversed that decision, and instead set up a cap-and-trade system, which established a system to trade pollution allowances.

A February 2008 court decision struck down the Bush administration’s rules for mercury emissions. After being sued by the American Nurses Association and a coalition of environmental groups, the EPA entered into a consent decree that required a proposal for a limit on mercury emissions from power plants to be signed by March 16, 2011, and a final rule to be completed by November 2011.

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

In the power sector alone, coal-fired power plants are responsible for 99 percent of mercury emissions. Currently, more than half of all coal-fired power plants already deploy the widely available pollution control technologies that allow them to meet these standards.

Once final, the new standards will require the remaining coal-fired plants, roughly 44 percent of those active, to take similar steps to decrease the regulated pollutants.

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

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.

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