Instead of Coal, Santa and EPA Bring Relief from Toxic Mercury

With less than a week to go before Christmas, you might think that this post is about an early present. In fact, it’s about a late present—two decades late—but it is a fantastic present anyway.

Today, after more than two decades of delay, EPA has finally announced strong, life-saving emission limits for mercury from coal plants.  With respect to human health these limits will prevent as many as 11,000 premature deaths, over 100,000 asthma attacks, over 4,000 heart attacks and nearly 6,000 hospital visits each year. Economically the new rule will create 46,000 short-term and 8,000 long-term American jobs. The rule will generate billions of dollars in nationwide economic benefits working out to as much as $9 in benefits for every $1 spent on compliance. In the Southeast alone these benefits will range from $9.2-$22.7 billion.

This rule is the first-ever national limit on mercury pollution from coal plants, but the technologies needed to meet the standard are readily available. In fact, many plants already employ scrubbers, selective catalytic reduction and baghouses, the three technological components that most plants will use to achieve the new limits. Even with ready technology, coal plants have three years to comply and many will qualify for an additional one-year extension, providing balance between the need for strong standards and the need for utility flexibility.

In light of this rule, it is likely that many utilities will reevaluate their heavy reliance on coal. Coal has been the dominant source of power in the Southeast for generations but the economics of coal are changing. The price of coal is increasing, the price of alternative fuels is decreasing and coal plants in our region, which on average are over 40 years old, are becoming less efficient and more expensive to operate. Mercury standards will give utilities the opportunity to look at their aging coal fleets and determine if coal retirement is a better investment than installing new mercury controlling technologies.

We are proud that EPA has finalized this rule in the face of tremendous opposition. For decades the coal industry’s Grinch lobbyists have been trying to prevent this life-saving gift and today coal utilities and anti-environmental crusaders in Congress are openly fighting mothers, children and the environment. In 2011 alone, the U.S. Congress has voted 191 times to weaken environmental protections and limit EPA’s power to enforce rules such as these new mercury pollution limits. In this political climate, EPA deserves special recognition and praise for taking this long-delayed lifesaving step.

Considering all the health and environmental benefits, this rule will take the coal out of your stockings and replace it with clean air, clean water and billions of dollars of societal benefits, just in time for the holidays.

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