EPA Proposes First National Mercury Standard for Power Plants

In response to a court deadline, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on Wednesday proposed the first-ever national standards for mercury, arsenic and other toxic air pollution from power plants. 

This standards are the most important to clean up air pollution from dirty coal plants since the Clean Air Act was last updated in 1990.

The new power plant mercury and air toxics standards–which eliminate 20 years of uncertainty across industry–would require many power plants to install widely available, proven pollution control technologies to cut harmful emissions of mercury, arsenic, chromium, nickel and acid gases, while preventing as many as 17,000 premature deaths and 11,000 heart attacks a year, EPA said.

The new proposed standards would also 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. 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.

EPA said this rule will create environmental jobs for thousands, by supporting 31,000 short-term construction jobs and 9,000 long-term utility jobs.

“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. “

Toxic air pollutants like mercury from coal- 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 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 our nation’s 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.

Power plants are the largest remaining 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% 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 important standards. Once final, these standards will ensure the remaining coal-fired plants, roughly 44%, take similar steps to decrease dangerous pollutants.

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, EPA said. The proposed rule provides up to 4 years for facilities to meet the standards and, once fully implemented, will prevent 91% of mercury in coal from being released into the air.

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; however, there is still no national standard for mercury emissions from power plants. Today’s announcement is long awaited, coming 11 years after EPA announced it would set such limits for power plants, and following a February 2008 court decision that struck down the previous administration’s mercury rule.

In October 2009, 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.

However, this rule and others are threatened by legislation currently being pushed by Republicans in Congress, who want to cut funding for the EPA’s regulatory efforts and block its authority to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

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