EPA takes aim at airborne mercury

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has issued limits on the amount of mercury and other toxics substances pouring from the stacks of mostly coal-fired power plants.

Dubbed the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, they're the first national regulations to be put in place and were vigorously opposed by the coal industry. The standards are meant to protect people from mercury, arsenic, acid gas, nickel, selenium and cyanide, the EPA says.

Officials say the "standards will 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."

However, they didn't list specifics. The standards enacted match those proposed.

Big mercury reduction

The nation's 491 coal-fired plants contribute an estimated 48 tons of mercury into the air each year. A report by Northeast States for Coordinated Air Use Management says the most stringent standards for reducing mercury emissions would remove 96 percent from the stacks of coal-fired power plants while the least would remove only 40 percent. The report's authors say it's a difference of 2 and 28 tons.

EPA estimates that the new safeguards will prevent as many as 11,000 premature deaths and 4,700 heart attacks a year. The standards will also prevent 130,000 cases of childhood asthma symptoms and about 6,300 fewer cases of acute bronchitis among children each year, officials say.

"These standards represent a major victory for clean air and public health," says EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson. The "health benefits ... far outweigh the costs of compliance."

Compliance costly

Some coal-fired power plants already have been retrofit with toxic emissions controls that would meet the most stringent reductions, but for others it would be a problem. For instance, biggovernment.com says: "In some cases, these companies simply can’t afford to buy the equipment and for others the needed equipment isn’t commercially available. If this rule is implemented, it would force the shut down of many coal-fired power plants."

According to a Government Accountability Office report from October 2009, some 14 plants with sorbent injection systems installed have complied, "enabling them to meet state or other mercury emission requirements -- generally 80 percent to 90 percent reductions."

The GAO also found that the 14 plants spent an average of $3.6 million on the systems -- "a fraction of the cost of other pollution control devices." The pollution-control systems inject sorbents -- powdery substances to which mercury binds -- into the exhaust from boilers to achieve the reductions, the GAO says. And it says annual cost of buying sorbents is about $675,000, still a modest sum compared to the potential cost to human health down the road.

Long time coming

The regulations are 20 in the making. Congress passed the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments and mandated that EPA require control of toxic air pollutants including mercury.

More than half of all coal-fired power plants already use pollution control technologies. EPA officials say that once final, these standards "will level the playing field by ensuring the remaining plants – about 40 percent of all coal fired power plants - take similar steps to decrease dangerous pollutants.

What others are saying

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg: "Today, the President has done the right thing by ignoring the false claims of a narrow special interest and siding with the public health and the public good."

Shannon Baker-Branstetter, Consumers Union: Regulating mercury emissions is just a common sense way to protect consumers."

President and CEO of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity Steve Miller: "The EPA is out of touch with the hard reality facing American families and businesses. This latest rule will destroy jobs, raise the cost of energy and could even make electricity less reliable."