EPA proposes toxic emissions rules for power plants

After two decades of delays and false starts, U.S. EPA unveiled a plan today to require coal- and oil-fired power plants to reduce emissions of mercury and 83 other toxics by 2016.

The proposed rules would limit the amount of toxic pollution that can be released into the air for every unit of electricity that is generated. In total, the plan would reduce mercury and acid gas emissions from the U.S. power sector by 91 percent while cutting soot-forming sulfur dioxide (SO2) pollution by 53 percent, the agency said today.

Those reductions will protect vulnerable Americans from asthma, developmental disorders and other health problems, as Congress requested when it updated the Clean Air Act 20 years ago, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said today at the agency's Washington, D.C., headquarters, flanked by the leaders of the American Lung Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics.

The rules will prevent 17,000 premature deaths and 11,000 heart attacks per year, as well as 120,000 cases of asthma, while adding only $3 or $4 to the average homeowner's monthly electric bill, Jackson said.

"We are confident in these expectations because this has been the history of the Clean Air Act for 40 years now," Jackson said. "The Clean Air Act is literally a lifesaver."


The proposal, which was due by today under a court deadline, is one of several new EPA requirements that is expected to drive the next generation of investments in the power sector. Though it was hailed by health groups and many Democrats, it will do nothing to appease the agency's critics, who have described the push to clean up air pollution as part of a "war on coal."

The rules would replace the George W. Bush administration's Clean Air Mercury Rule, a cap-and-trade program that would have forced power plants to cut their mercury emissions by 70 percent. In 2008, a federal court ordered EPA to go back to the drawing board, saying the agency hadn't shown that there would not be health consequences from the decision not to control other metals, such as cadmium and chromium, as well as cancer-causing chemicals such as dioxins and furans.

Today's proposal, which will be followed by a final rule in November, would force some utilities to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to upgrade older power plants that have not already been required to install controls.

All the controls will cost about $10.9 billion per year, according to EPA's analysis of the new rules, compared to benefits of $59 billion to $140 billion. Once the rules are final, companies will have three years to comply with the new rules, though they can get a one-year extension if it proves impossible to get the controls added in time.

Many power plants might need activated carbon injection (ACI) units to control their mercury emissions, as well as flue gas desulfurization (FGD) units, or "scrubbers," to limit their emissions of acid gases. Others might need baghouses, fabric filtering units that keep toxic metals out of the air by trapping the fine particles that are released when fuel is burned.

Scrubbers have been installed at many plants because of separate limits on SO2, including a cap-and-trade program that was created two decades ago to fight acid rain.

Power plants with about 40 percent of the nation's coal-fired capacity -- a total of 129 gigawatts, enough to power about 65 million American homes -- do not have scrubbers, according to an analysis by the consulting firm M. J. Bradley & Associates LLC.

Because it is not an emissions trading program, the program will not allow hotspots of toxic pollution, said Marian Burton, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

"Dirty air makes children sick. That's the long and short of it," Burton said. "If you think it's an expensive process to put a scrubber on a smokestack, you should see how much it costs over a lifetime to treat a child with a preventable birth defect."

Some Republicans in Congress have raised concerns that the rules could hike electricity prices by raising the cost of burning coal. Some power companies and analysts have also suggested that the toxics rules and other new requirements could cause many power plants to be retired, leading to power shortages.

EPA has vowed to avoid that situation.

It is expected to cause about 10 gigawatts of coal-fired generation to be retired, but many of those plants likely would be shut down anyway, an agency official said today. Most of the lost electricity would be provided by natural gas-fired power plants, the official said.

The controls needed to cut down on toxic pollution are proven, and environmental technology companies are ready to install it, said Mike Durham, CEO of Littleton, Colo.-based ADA-ES Inc. His company has installed mercury controls on about 100 coal-fired boilers that were upgraded in response to state regulations and is now ramping up its production of activated carbon to deal with the expected spike in demand from power plants.

"I don't believe it will be a challenge," Durham said in an interview. "We've had years to prepare for this."

Click here to read the proposed rule.

Click here to read a fact sheet.

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