EPA Proposes New Mercury Rule

epaOn March 16th, 2011 the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a long-awaited rule to set national emission standards for mercury and other hazardous air pollution (HAPs) from coal-fired power plants. This rule is 20 years in the making and is a welcome step toward a cleaner energy future.

The new rule proposed by EPA will establish national standards to limit mercury and other toxic air emissions from coal- and oil-fired power plants. EPA estimates that these new standards will prevent 91% of mercury in coal burned at power plants from being released to the air, which will have a significant impact on human health and the environment. Moreover, the new rule should create 31,000 temporary jobs and 9,000 permanent jobs while producing a net benefit upwards of $130 billion dollars.

There is no official deadline for comments yet, but once the rule is published in the Federal Register, the public will have 60 days to submit comments, so please stay tuned and read on for more details.

For the purposes of this blog we will focus mostly on mercury, which is a well-known and potent neurotoxin that can cause serious health and developmental problems particularly in young children and developing fetuses. But air toxics or hazardous air pollutants (HAPs) will also be covered by this rule as many of them pose serious, even carcinogenic, risks to human health and the environment. One peer-reviewed scientific study estimates that U.S. mercury emissions reduce economic productivity by $1.3 billion annually, mostly through reduced IQ levels. Power plants are the chief contributor to this on-going health and economic burden.

Power plants account for 50% of all U.S. mercury air emissions (see below) and coal plants make up 99% of those emissions. In the 1990s when Congress amended the Clean Air Act and developed a new program for limiting hazardous air pollutants, EPA established important rules to limit mercury from other sources such as municipal waste combustors and medical waste incinerators. In the past 20 years those sources have reduced their mercury emissions by over 95% while power plants have reduced their mercury emissions by only 10%.


This marginal 10% improvement is incidental to other environmental upgrades that coal plants have made over the decades. The reason coal is so far behind others in improving its mercury emissions is because EPA delayed rules to ensure installation of the most modern environmental technologies for so long. Congress directed EPA to act on mercury pollution in 1990. It was not until 2000 that EPA first issued a determination that it was both appropriate and necessary to control mercury from power plants but a new rule was not forthcoming. In 2005 the Bush EPA attempted to treat mercury as a non-hazardous air pollutant and establish a cap-and-trade program, but a federal court found that this program was legally inadequate.

Now, twenty years later and despite new criticism from the current Congress and the coal industry, EPA issued this crucial and long-overdue rule that will save thousands of lives.

Studies show that mercury exposure impacts neurological development and harms the growth of the brain and nervous system. Mercury also has a more localized impact than other more conventional pollutants such as smog causing nitrogen oxides and acid rain causing sulfur dioxide. One important study from Steubenville, Ohio demonstrated that the majority of localized mercury deposition is the result of local coal combustion. This reality further highlights the importance of strict mercury emission limits to prevent disproportionate impacts that unfairly burden communities surrounding coal plants. As the map below (from Environment America) illustrates, many coal plants and significant mercury emissions are located here in the Southeast, putting this region at particular risk of exposure.


In fact, the Southeast is home to almost 300 coal units that collectively emit over 20,000 pounds of mercury into the air. Mercury is ultimately deposited in streams, which accounts for the mercury-related fish consumption advisories in every state in the region. This exposure clearly presents a risk to the approximately 6.5 million anglers in the region and even if you don’t fish yourself, mercury emissions from coal plants can still end up on your dinner plate. While some mercury emissions are deposited locally in rivers, lakes and streams and on nearby land, the remainder enters a global pool in the atmosphere that may be deposited in the oceans. Predatory fish, like some tuna, swordfish, king mackerel and shark have relatively high mercury content due in part to human caused mercury emissions, including those from coal plants.

Clean Up or Clear Out

Another significant aspect of this new rule is its application to both new and existing coal plants. Many other regulations only require new plants to install the cleanest technologies, letting hundreds of existing facilities off the hook. But this rule will finally level the playing field and require the oldest and worst mercury and air toxic offenders to clean up as well.

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists in their new report “A Risky Proposition: The Financial Hazards of New Investments in Coal Plants,” new regulations like this mercury and air toxic rule, operation and maintenance costs of existing old coal power plants are increasingly close to the costs of building and operating new plants.

Between now and the time this rule takes effect in 2014, utilities will have critical choices to make about their fleet of coal plants. They will likely spend the necessary money to upgrade their most efficient and most financially worthy old plants. For the remainder of their fleet, they will have to decide whether to invest hundreds of millions of dollars to upgrade or whether they will simply retire these dinosaurs and invest ratepayer money in safer modern sources of clean and renewable energy.

EPA will be taking public comment on this new mercury and air toxics rule soon and the comment period will remain open for 60 days. Please check back to this posting for new information as it becomes available and click here to learn more details of this proposal.

This blog was edited by Ulla Reeves.

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