Health groups gird for fight over EPA's power-plant toxics rules

With the Obama administration required to put its plan for reducing toxic air pollution from coal-fired power plants on the table a week from today, the American Lung Association and other public health groups have started an early push to explain why U.S. EPA shouldn't flinch on the long-delayed rules.

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson is under a legal deadline to release a proposal by March 16 and finalize it by November. Environmentalists and public health groups are pushing her to make the rules far stricter than the George W. Bush administration's Clean Air Mercury Rule, a cap-and-trade program that aimed to cut mercury pollution by about 70 percent but did not place limits on other types of toxic emissions.

According to a report released yesterday by the Lung Association, the technology needed to control all of the toxic pollutants is already in wide use, and in most cases, it cuts emissions by more than 90 percent. Currently, the power sector produces about 40 percent of U.S. mercury emissions and 76 percent of acid gases, the report says.

Janice Nolen, the group's director of national policy, said power plants have gone long enough without cleaning up their pollution, as Congress had ordered 20 years ago. In late 2000, just before the Clinton administration left office, EPA wrapped up a years-long study and decided that limits on toxic pollution from power plants were needed to avoid health problems such as asthma, heart attacks and cancer.

That move left the ball in the court of the George W. Bush administration, which ended up passing it to the Obama administration after the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia rejected the mercury rule in 2008.


"It is a story of delay from the beginning," Nolen said in an interview this week. "One of the things I've learned is that a delay is a frequent tool of people who do not want to clean up. More studies, they feel, are needed, even though it's been studied and the evidence is profoundly clear. More study always sounds like a reasonable approach. Well, after 20 years, it's time to stop studying -- it's time to put things in place that we know are needed, and can work."

Jackson testified last week on Capitol Hill that the agency will be done on time with the proposed rule, which has been under review at the White House Office of Management and Budget since mid-February (Greenwire, Feb. 22).

She also posted a link to the Lung Association report on her official Twitter account yesterday, saying it documents the "serious health threats from toxins released by power plants."

Under 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act, large industrial plants are supposed to use the best technology available to control more than 180 types of hazardous air pollution, including mercury, lead and arsenic.

The limits are based on the technology being used by the top 12 percent of pollution sources. About 13 percent of U.S. power plants now have mercury controls, according to the Lung Association report -- far less than are using other types of controls, but still enough that most power plants will likely be required to cut their mercury emissions by roughly 90 percent.

Industry groups await emission targets

Power companies are waiting to see what specific pollution limits EPA will choose, said Claudia O'Brien, an attorney at Latham & Watkins LLP whose clients include utilities.

Most kinds of toxic pollution -- the notable exception is mercury -- can be controlled by the same equipment that is used to limit soot and acid rain gases such as sulfur dioxide. EPA officials have said that their main target is older power plants that do not have any controls at all, but strict limits on emissions of heavy metals and other toxics could force plants that are already trapping most of the toxic pollution to install newer controls at a huge cost and very little benefit, O'Brien said.

The limits on toxic pollution will force many coal-fired power plants out of business, hurting states in the Midwest that currently rely heavily on fossil fuels, said Mike Carey, president of the Ohio Coal Association, in recent testimony on Capitol Hill.

"We are opposed to this new regulatory onslaught, which not only appears designed to force coal out of business but also to transfer massive amounts of wealth to some New England and West Coast states," he told the House Energy and Commerce Committee earlier this month.

Critics also point out that the toxics rules, along with rules for interstate air pollution, cooling water and coal ash, could drive the retirement of as much as 78,000 megawatts of power generation, according to an October report by the North American Electric Reliability Corp. That is enough to power the homes of about 39 million Americans and about 7 percent of U.S. capacity.

The rules are going to force utilities to decide on their fuel mixes for the decades ahead, and they won't provide as much certainty as action by Congress would, O'Brien said.

"Some of us have been jumping up and down and arguing for multi-pollutant legislation for years, right?" she said. "This is the quintessential example of why."

Emphasizing regulatory benefits

With most energy efforts stalled in Congress, environmental advocates are resting their hopes on EPA, as the Lung Association report shows. A similar report was released earlier this year by the advocacy group Environment America, listing the mercury emissions for each U.S. state's fleet of coal-fired power plants and for every individual plant.

The current political climate will likely force them to fend off attacks on pollution rules that could require close to $200 billion in capital costs, according to a recent analysis by Charles River Associates, and may cause electricity costs to rise.

But the benefits are likely to climb into the hundreds of billions of dollars as well. When EPA released a set of final air pollution rules for industrial boilers, which included limits on a similar set of toxic chemicals, the agency estimated that Americans would get $10 to $24 in health benefits for every dollar spent on the standards.

And on top of that, some economists say that ordering upgrades at power plants will create jobs. Along with another rule that would limit soot- and smog-forming pollution that crosses state lines, the toxics rules would create the equivalent of 300,000 full-time jobs for the next five years, according to a new study by the investor advocacy group Ceres and researchers at the University of Massachusetts (Greenwire, Feb. 8).

"You have to build this equipment, and you have to haul away the old stuff," Nolen said. "There's real work, so it is a benefit to the economy -- even apart from not killing people, which I personally think is kind of an important deal."

Click here to read the American Lung Association report.

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