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EPA Acts On Power Plant Emissions

Clean Air: New regulation requires power plants to cut mercury, other toxic substances

by Jeff Johnson
January 2, 2012 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 90, Issue 1

Credit: Newscom
Colorful predawn sky surrounds an illuminated coal-fired power plant emitting clouds of steam in Wyoming.
Credit: Newscom

After lawsuits and regulatory battles that stretch back to the Clean Air Act of 1990, the Environmental Protection Agency has issued a regulation requiring coal-fired and oil-fired electric power plants to cut mercury, arsenic, cyanide, and other toxic air emissions. The new regulation will reduce mercury emissions from the worst-performing plants by 90%.

The new regime affects 1,400 utilities, 1,100 of which are large, coal-fired electric power plants that provide nearly half of the U.S.’s electricity. EPA estimates that 40% of these coal-based plants do not use modern pollution control equipment. Some are at least 50 years old. The move is expected to quicken the shift of utilities away from coal, but EPA gave utilities four years to comply.

EPA estimates the safeguards will prevent as many as 11,000 premature deaths and 4,700 heart attacks annually, as well as 130,000 cases of childhood asthma and about 6,300 cases of acute bronchitis.

The regulation will cost utilities about $9.6 billion, EPA says, but will result in $37 billion to $90 billion in annual health benefits. The agency also predicts the regulation will create thousands of manufacturing, installation, and operational jobs.

Coal-fired power plants are the U.S.’s largest remaining source of toxic air pollutants and are responsible for half of the nation’s mercury emissions and 75% of its acid gas releases.

As a result of the Clean Air Act, other major sources of mercury emissions—medical waste and municipal waste incinerators—have already cut those emissions, EPA notes; only power plants remain.

The new pollution limits are technology based, requiring old plants to match emissions limits of the best performing 12% of coal-fired power plants. New technologies could include a combination of selective catalytic reduction equipment, fabric filters, and injected activated carbon to capture mercury and other toxic emissions. About half of the nation’s coal-fired power plants have installed the equipment, EPA estimates.

Utilities are split on the regulation: Cleaner utilities back the agency, but utilities with old coal plants and uncontrolled emissions warn that the regulation will cause them to shutter plants.



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