Dozens of older U.S. power plants will have to clean up or shut down under the first-ever national standards aimed at reducing their toxic air pollutant emissions.
New Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS), just released by the Environmental Protection Agency, are designed to slash mercury, arsenic, metals, arsenic, acid gas, nickel, selenium, cyanide and other toxic air pollutants emitted by coal- and oil-fired power plants.
|Under the new rule, other power plants will likely share the fate of Mohave Power Station, near Laughlin, NV, which shut down in 2005 rather than install additional pollution control equipment.|
The plants are the largest remaining source of uncontrolled toxic air pollution in the United States.
EPA issued the long-awaited rule Dec. 21, saying it would “slash emissions of these dangerous pollutants by relying on widely available, proven pollution controls that are already in use at more than half of the nation’s coal-fired power plants.”
The agency called the rule long overdue, noting that 11 years had passed since EPA issued a scientific and legal determination that mercury emissions from power plants should be controlled—and that more than 20 years had passed since Congress passed the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments authorizing EPA to control toxic air pollutants from plant smokestacks.
EPA was also bound by a Consent Decree deadline issued by the D.C. Court of Appeals, which struck down an effort by the administration of President George W. Bush to exempt the power plants from toxic air pollutant controls.
Public Health Imperative
EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson announced the new rule at a press conference at Children's National Medical Center in Washington, D.C., underscoring the agency’s view that the issue is a public health imperative.
When fully implemented in 2016, the rule will reduce emissions from coal by 90 percent, acid gases by 88 percent, and soot-producing sulfur dioxide by 41 percent.
EPA estimates that the new standards will prevent up 11,000 premature deaths, 4,700 heart attacks, 130,000 cases of childhood asthma symptoms, and about 6,300 fewer cases of acute childhood bronchitis each year.
|Coal- and oil-fired power plants are the largest remaining source of uncontrolled toxic pollution in the United States.|
"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,” said Jackson, who called the rule President Obama’s "biggest clean air action yet.”
"The Mercury and Air Toxics Standards will protect millions of families and children from harmful and costly air pollution and provide the American people with health benefits that far outweigh the costs of compliance."
Clean Up or Shut Down
Power plants are responsible for half of the mercury and over 75 percent of the acid gas emissions in the United States.
The new rule will force plant operators to install pollution control equipment, switch to cleaner-burning natural gas, or shut down. The rule is expected to hit hardest in the Midwest and in the coal belt—Kentucky, West Virginia and Virginia—where dozens of units probably will be mothballed, the Associated Press reported.
More than 32 mostly coal-fired power plants in a dozen states will likely shut down, and 36 might have to close, said the AP, which surveyed electricity generators and EPA officials on the rule’s impact.
On the other hand, although hundreds of the nation’s 1,200 coal- and oil-fired units lack modern pollution controls, most will find ways to comply and continue to run, the AP’s analysis showed.
At $9.6 billion a year, the rule will be one of the costliest ever issued by EPA. However, the agency contends that the American public will see up to $9 in health benefits for every dollar spent on implementation.
EPA received more than 900,000 public comments during the rule-making process—ensuring, the agency said, that the resulting standards focus on “readily available and widely deployed pollution control technologies” manufactured by U.S. companies.
Sensitive to chronic political criticism that equates government standards with job loss, EPA insisted that manufacturing, engineering, installing and maintaining the pollution controls to meet the standards would “provide employment for thousands” of people, “potentially including 46,000 short-term construction jobs and 8,000 long-term utility jobs.”
4 Years to Comply
The rule sets technology-based emissions limit standards for mercury and other toxic air pollutants, reflecting levels achieved by the best-performing sources now in operation.
The final rule sets standards for all Hazardous Air Pollutants emitted by coal- and oil-fired Electric Generating Units (EGUs) with a capacity of 25 megawatts or greater. All regulated EGUs are considered major under the final rule.
Existing sources generally will have up to four years to comply with MATS. Additional implementation time may be granted on a case-by-case basis.
Cheers: ‘The Right Thing’
The rule drew cheers from urban and public-health officials.
Albert A. Rizzo, MD, of the American Lung Association, called the standards “a huge victory for public health.”
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said Obama had “done the right thing by ignoring the false claims of a narrow special interest and siding with the public health and the public good. The new EPA mercury standards will save countless lives and improve the quality of life for millions.”
Alan Baker, of the American Public Health Association, said the “critically needed standards could mean the difference between a chronic debilitating, expensive illness or healthy life for hundreds of thousands of American children and adults.”
He added: “The dangerous health risks associated with coal-burning power plants is no longer an elusive, distant threat.”
Jeers: ‘Overly Aggressive’
Manufacturing and conservative groups blasted the rule, predicting energy price spikes and shortages.
The National Association of Manufacturers accused EPA of pursuing “an overly aggressive agenda that is harming manufacturers’ ability to compete.”
“Electricity prices will go up with this regulation, impacting many consumers nationwide,” NAM said in a statement.
“Manufacturers use one-third of our nation’s energy supply, so a jump in energy prices will have a devastating impact on companies of all sizes, harming their ability to create jobs, invest and grow.”
The American Coatings Association had no immediate comment.
Rep. Darrell Issa, R-CA, a leading Obama critic, said the rule could "unintentionally jeopardize the reliability of our electric grid," while the U.S. Chamber of Commerce released an ad saying the rule "could threaten America's energy supply."
The conservative National Center for Public Policy Research was livid, saying Obama had given “hard-working families higher electricity prices for Christmas.”
Like it or not, however, the rule is unlikely to unseat coal as the most common electricity source.
"In the industry, we retire units. That is part of our business," John Moura, manager of reliability assessment at the North American Electric Reliability Corp., which represents the nation's electrical grid operators.
On the other hand, the rule could accelerate the retirement crunch, and hundreds of units will need to be idled temporarily to install controls, officials note. NERC is requesting more time to comply with the rules, to avoid too many simultaneous shutdowns.
"We are getting a little hammered here, because we see multiple requests," Moura told the AP.