Proposed EPA rule is first to limit mercury emissions
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The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has proposed the first-ever national controls on mercury and other air pollution toxics from power plants.
The long-awaited standards, announced Wednesday in response to a court deadline, are designed to reduce emissions of mercury -- a potent neurotoxin -- arsenic, chromium, lead, nickel and acid gases from power plants by 91 percent, while providing the utility industry up to four years to comply.
"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 at a news conference in Washington, D.C. "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."
The health-based regulations are expected to prevent as many as 17,000 premature deaths and 11,000 heart attacks a year, EPA officials said.
The proposed rule is open for public comment. A final rule by the EPA is expected in November, the deadline set in an October 2009 consent decree to settle a lawsuit by a dozen environmental groups. The Clean Air Act of 1990 mandated toxic pollution controls, and the EPA announced it would set such limits 11 years ago.
There are now no national standards for mercury emissions and acid gases, half of which come from power plants. There are 17 states with mercury controls, but Pennsylvania doesn't have one because its mercury rule was declared unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court in December 2009.
Texas power plants emit more mercury than those in any other state. The top mercury emitter in the nation, releasing 1,566 pounds, was the Martin Lake power plant, which burns lignite, a very dirty coal, and is owned by Energy Future Holdings.
Pennsylvania's mercury emissions are second in the nation.
Two Pennsylvania coal-fired power plants, the Keystone power plant in Armstrong County and the Conemaugh power plant in Indiana County, are listed among the top 25 mercury emitters in the U.S., according to a report released Wednesday by the Environmental Defense Fund. Both facilities are co-owned by Public Service Enterprise Group Inc., part of a consortium of power companies that includes Exelon, Constellation, GenOn and PPL.
According to the Environmental Defense report, Keystone emitted 795 pounds of mercury in 2009 and ranked 15th in the nation, while Conemaugh's mercury emissions that year were 569 pounds and ranked 22nd.
David Benson, chief operating officer for the consortium that owns Keystone and Conemaugh, issued a statement that said the group has invested more than $1 billion in the plants to control sulfur dioxides and nitrogen oxides and that those controls have also reduced mercury emissions, although the reductions are not reflected in the 2009 emissions numbers.
"We are continually evaluating additional emission control strategies at both plants and will meet any emission regulations, including mercury, that might apply to continued operation of the plants," the statement said.
Charles McPhedran, senior attorney for Citizens for Pennsylvania's Future, said Pennsylvania is "ground zero" for mercury pollution and said the proposed rule would be "fantastic" because its provisions for controlling metals would update and tighten the state's old fine particle regulation.
"Reducing mercury emissions by 91 percent looks good to me," he said. "The three-year compliance with a one-year extension looks good. And the fine particles rule to pick up other metals offers strong benefits for Pennsylvania."
Coal-fired power plants are responsible for 99 percent of mercury emissions from the electric power industry. The toxic pollutants are known to cause neurological damage, according to the EPA, including lower IQ in children. The pollutants also cause environmental damage to rivers, lakes and streams and the fish that live in them. Many states warn people to limit the amount of fish they eat due to mercury contamination, and Pennsylvania has issued consumption advisories for every lake, river and stream in the state.
"This is historic. It would end the lethal loophole that permits coal-burning power plants to spew poisonous pollution into the air," said Frank O'Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch, an environmental organization focused on air quality. "Indeed, this is the single biggest step for public health protection that the EPA will take this year. Thousands of Americans will live longer and many millions will breathe easier as a result. Not only that, but fish will be safer to eat as toxic mercury is reduced from water bodies."
Utility industry groups had mixed reactions to the proposed rule. The electric Reliability Coordinating Council, a D.C. lobbying organization, said the rule will put manufacturing jobs at risk, have few environmental benefits and cost $100 billion to implement, not the $10 billion the EPA estimates.
But Clean Energy Group, an organization that promotes replacing existing electricity generation systems with less polluting and cleaner energy technologies, praised the EPA for proposing the rule. Its release said operators of coal-fired power plants have known for a decade that mercury controls would be established and has been preparing by investing in modern pollution controls and cleaner, more efficient power plants.
Anne Hoskins, senior vice president for public affairs and sustainability for Public Service Enterprise Group, which is a member of that organization, said the goals of the toxics rule can be achieved in a cost-effective manner while maintaining the reliability of the electric system.
"The industry has had more than enough time to study and prepare for their requirements," she said. "We support the EPA's efforts to finalize the rule in order to reap the significant public health benefits as indicated by the agency's analysis. There ought to be no further delay."
The EPA estimates that the proposed rule's public health and economic benefits, including the creation of an estimated 31,000 short-term construction jobs and 9,000 long-term maintenance and operational jobs, will greatly exceed the costs of implementation. Every dollar spent to install pollution controls will produce public health and economic business benefits of up to $13. That could total as much as $140 billion annually.
Controls on air toxics were required by Congress in the 1990 amendments to the federal Clean Air Act. Another recent EPA study estimated that from 1990 through 2020 the Clean Air Act will save more than 2 million lives and produce $2 trillion in benefits.
Ms. Jackson said the installation of toxics pollution controls at the 44 percent of the nation's coal-fired power plants that have no controls could lead to utility bill increases of from $3 to $4 a month for consumers. It might also cause utilities to close some of the nation's oldest and biggest polluting power plants and invest in new power plant construction instead.
Correction/Clarification: (Published March 18, 2011) In a Thursday story about a proposed federal mercury rule, the name of Charles McPhedran, senior attorney for Citizens for Pennsylvania's Future, was misspelled. Also in that story, PSEG, an energy company, is part of a consortium of energy companies that owns the Keystone and Conemaugh power plants. It was misidentified as the owner of those two power plants.
First Published March 17, 2011 12:00 am