EPA unveils rules limiting mercury, other power plant toxics

The Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday unveiled highly anticipated national standards to limit power plant output of mercury and other toxic air pollutants that have been linked to developmental disorders and childhood asthma.

The long-delayed final standards have been the subject of a ferocious lobbying and public-relations battle. And it's a fight that could spill onto the presidential campaign trail at a time when GOP candidates routinely accuse Obama of pursuing an overzealous green agenda.

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The regulations are a victory for environmental groups, which are still recovering from the bitter disappointment of the White House’s decision to scuttle much-anticipated smog regulations. But they face vehement opposition from Republicans and industry groups, who argue the rules will harm the economy, force the closure of coal-fired power plants and threaten the reliability of the country’s power grid.

The administration took pains Wednesday to limit the political fallout from the regulations. President Obama intends to issue a memorandum later Wednesday directing EPA to ensure the standards impose the least possible cost on industry and don’t threaten electric reliability.

EPA said Wednesday that the regulations — which require coal- and oil-fired power plants to install technology to reduce harmful air pollution — will offer massive public health benefits at limited cost to industry.


The agency estimates that the standards will prevent 11,000 premature deaths, 4,700 heart attacks and 130,000 cases of childhood asthma per year.

"By cutting emissions that are linked to developmental disorders and respiratory illnesses like asthma, these standards represent a major victory for clean air and public health — and especially for the health of our children,” EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said in a statement.

“With these standards that were two decades in the making, EPA is rounding out a year of incredible progress on clean air in America with another action that will benefit the American people for years to come,” Jackson said.

In an effort to drive home the regulations’ health benefits, Jackson is set to unveil the standards Wednesday at the Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C. She was joined at the event by officials from the American Lung Association and other supporters of the standards. 

The agency made an effort to show that the power industry is not uniformly against the standards. Paul Allen, a senior official with power giant Constellation Energy, is slated to appear at Wednesday's rollout.

EPA said that more than half of the country’s existing coal-fired power plants have already installed the necessary technology to meet the new standards. About 40 percent of the country’s coal-fired plants will be required to update their facilities under the rules, according to the agency.

Plant operators have up to four years to comply with the standards. In an effort to stem criticism of the standards, EPA said Wednesday it would potentially allow a fifth year on a case-by-case basis if electric reliability issues arise on a localized level. But the agency added that “there will be few, if any situations, in which this pathway will be needed.”

EPA also said the regulations will help create 46,000 temporary construction jobs and 8,000 permanent utility jobs.

Environmental groups cheered the new standards Wednesday.
 
“We can breathe easier today. After decades of industry-induced delay, the Environmental Protection Agency did exactly what it was designed to do: look out for our health and our environment,” said Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, in a statement.
 

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“Dirty coal-fired power plants will have to clean up the toxic soup of emissions that is polluting our air and making people sick, especially children,” she said.
 
The rules come over the protest of House Republicans, who shepherded legislation through their chamber in September that would indefinitely delay the rules and force EPA to rewrite them.
 
Major utilities with coal-fired generation, like American Electric Power and Southern Co., have also fought the standards, holding a series of meetings with White House Office of Management and Budget officials as recently as mid-December, warning the rules will force layoffs and hurt power reliability by forcing the closure of a massive number of plants.

Industry groups blasted the regulations Wednesday. Scott Segal, director of the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, a group of utilities, said the rules will “undermine job creation in the United States,” force the retirement of power plants and increase the cost of electricity.

“The bottom line: This rule is the most expensive air rule that EPA has ever proposed in terms of direct costs,” Segal said in a statement. “It is certainly the most extensive intervention into the power market and job market that EPA has ever attempted to implement.”

The Obama administration has pushed back in recent weeks on allegations that the rules will cause power outages. The Energy Department issued a report earlier this month that said the regulations will not threaten the reliability of the country’s electric grid.

The regulations, which were first mandated in 1990 as part of a series of amendments to the Clean Air Act, will reduce toxic air pollutants like mercury, arsenic, acid gas, nickel, selenium and cyanide. The air toxics have been shown to cause developmental problems in children as well as respiratory problems like asthma and bronchitis.

EPA had been ordered to complete the rule Friday under a court-ordered deadline, but delayed public rollout until this week.


Ben Geman contributed to this story.