EPA proposes first-ever mercury standards for coal plants

The proposed standards come as EPA is under attack from Republicans and some Democrats in Congress, who argue that the agency is issuing regulations that will hobble the economy. GOP lawmakers have set their sites on EPA's climate rules, but have also railed against other agency regulations, including the mercury standards.

The standards would require companies to install technology at power plants to lower a slew of harmful emissions.

Air pollutants like mercury, arsenic, chromium and nickel have been linked to instances of cancer and can affect infant brain development.

EPA said Wednesday that it followed closely an executive order signed by President Obama in January that requires federal agencies to ensure that regulations are cost effective and not overly burdensome.

The standards “are based on the latest data and provide industry significant flexibility in implementation through a phased-in approach and use of already existing technologies,” EPA said in a statement.

And EPA said the standards are cost-effective, asserting that for every $1 spent, the public will see $13 in benefits.

The public will have 60 days to comment on the proposed standards.

Environmentalists and clean air advocates praised the standards Wednesday.

“[T]his is the single biggest step for public health protection that the EPA will take this year,” Clean Air Watch President Frank O’Donnell said in a statement. “Thousands of Americans will live longer and many millions will breathe easier as a result. Not only that, but fish will be safer to eat as toxic mercury is reduced from water bodies.”

But industry groups said the standards would impose major economic burdens on the industry that could be passed on to consumers.

The standards would result in “higher utility bills for households and businesses, substantial job losses and a significant weakening of the nation’s electricity reliability,” National Mining Association President Hal Quinn said in a statement.