In one of its most significant initiatives in 20 years, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced final health-based rules Wednesday for controlling mercury, acid gases and other air toxics from oil- and coal-burning power plants.
The Mercury and Air Toxics Standards will save 11,000 lives and prevent 4,700 heart attacks and 130,000 childhood asthma attacks a year by 2016, according to the EPA, while reducing respiratory ailments, birth defects and cancers.
And, according to the Electric Power Generation Association of Pennsylvania, while the new standards may contribute to the retirement of eight to 10 small, old, coal-fired power plants in the state, it likely will not cause any power blackouts and should open the way for development of more natural gas-fueled power plants.
The first national emissions controls on utilities will reduce emissions of mercury -- a potent neurotoxin -- arsenic, chromium, lead, nickel and acid gases from power plants by 91 percent. Every dollar spent to reduce power plant pollution, the EPA said, will result in up to $9 in public health benefits, and the total health and economic benefits resulting from the long-awaited standards could be as much as $90 billion annually.
"By cutting emissions that are linked to developmental disorders and respiratory illnesses like asthma, these standards represent a major victory for clean air and public health -- and especially for the health of our children," EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson said in Washington, D.C. "With these standards that were two decades in the making, EPA is rounding out a year of incredible progress on clean air in America with another action that will benefit the American people for years to come."
Ms. Jackson said the toxics pollution controls could increase utility bills by $3 to $4 a month for consumers. The rules might also cause utilities to close some of the nation's oldest and biggest polluting power plants.
The new standards were not welcomed by many in the utility and coal industries.
Scott Segal, director of the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, a coalition of utilities that lobbies on electric power issues in Washington, D.C., and Steve Miller, president and chief executive officer of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, said the EPA's rules will increase the cost of power, cause job losses, and have few health benefits.
The rules, however, were praised by environmental, health, science, sportsmen's, investment, sustainable business and religious organizations, and even some electric utilities. Some called the rules "long overdo" and "monumental" and "historic" in their positive impacts on public health, the environment and the economy.
"As a result of the new standards, we will begin to see some relief from the power plant pollution that harms our health," said Deborah Brown, president and CEO of the American Lung Association of Pennsylvania. "This action is a significant victory in the fight for healthy air."
Bill McLin, president and CEO of the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, a not-for-profit health organization advocating for asthma sufferers, said the 20 million Americans with asthma, including 6.7 million children, will breathe easier because of the EPA's decision to control power plant emissions.
Coal-fired power plants are the largest sources of mercury, arsenic and other hazardous air pollutants. After intense industry lobbying, coal- and oil-fired electric power generators were exempted from 1990 Clean Air Act regulations governing toxic air emissions from other industrial operations.
Today, about 44 percent of the nation's more than 440 coal-fired power plants continue to operate without any pollution controls and are responsible for 99 percent of mercury emissions from the electric power industry.
The new Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, or MATS, contain two rules. The first establishes numerical limitations for mercury, airborne particles or soot, hydrochloric acid and metals. The second rule tightens limits that new coal-fired power plants must meet for airborne particle, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides emissions.
The new rules, based on more than 130 peer-reviewed scientific and health studies, give power plants that don't use controls three years to install the equipment, with a possible additional one-year extension. In addition, the rules provide for case-by-case extensions where necessary to ensure that electricity supply reliability is maintained.
According to the EPA, the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards and the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule, which was issued earlier this year, are the most significant steps to clean up pollution from power plant smokestacks since the Acid Rain Program of the 1990s. Combined, the rules annually could prevent up to 46,000 premature deaths, 540,000 asthma attacks among children and 24,500 emergency room visits and hospital admissions.
Power plant mercury controls already exist in 17 states, but not in Pennsylvania, where a mercury rule was declared unconstitutional by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in 2009.
A Natural Resources Defense Council report in July listed Pennsylvania as having the second-worst toxic air emissions in the nation, behind Ohio, and Pennsylvania's mercury emissions are second to Texas. Mark Baird, a spokesman for GenOn, owner of 18 power plants in Pennsylvania, said the company wouldn't comment on the rules until it has an opportunity to examine them in detail.
FirstEnergy, which owns four coal-fired power plants in Pennsylvania, including Hatfield's Ferry power plant in Greene County and Bruce Mansfield power plant in Shippingport, Beaver County, also said it is reviewing the rules. When the rules were proposed earlier this year, FirstEnergy estimated compliance costs at $2 billion to $3 billion.
"Over the next few months we'll evaluate things and look at our individual units to determine what they need to do to meet the regulations," said Ray Evans, environment executive director for FirstEnergy. "We have scrubbers on most all of the units but some might need retrofits."
Mr. Segal, of the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, and Mr. Miller, of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, said the EPA's rules will also make electricity less reliable. And just two months ago, Gov. Tom Corbett joined 10 other Republican governors in signing a letter to President Barack Obama asking him to withdraw the rules because of power supply reliability concerns.
But most national studies don't support that blackout warning, and Doug Biden, president of the Electric Power Generation Association in Pennsylvania, a Harrisburg association representing power producers statewide, said such an occurrence is very unlikely in Pennsylvania.
Mr. Biden said he does expect eight to 10 coal-fired power plants to close in the next few years, reducing Pennsylvania's power output by 3,000 to 4,000 megawatts, from its current total output of about 50,000 megawatts. He said he doesn't know which individual plants might close.
"I do expect significant retirements of coal power plants, but I'm not blaming the EPA's air toxics rules ...," Mr. Biden said. "When you look at everything together, the new rules, historically low natural gas prices and stubbornly high coal prices due to overseas demand, all of that makes it very difficult for companies to justify operation of small, older power plants."
Don Hopey: email@example.com or 412-263-1983.