EPA Proposes New Mercury Air Pollution Rules

Standards Proposed by Environmental Protection Agency Will Cut Mercury Released by Power Plants

By Brenda Goodman
WebMD Health News

Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

March 16, 2011 -- The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) today proposed the first national standards for mercury and other toxins emitted by power plants, which are some of the biggest air polluters in the nation.

A broad coalition of environmental groups, health agencies, and doctors hailed the new standards, which were issued under court order more than 20 years after they were mandated by congress.

"EPA is finally cleaning up the biggest source of toxic air pollution in America," says John Walke, a senior attorney and director of the Clean Air for the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington, D.C.

The EPA estimates that the new standards will save up to 17,000 lives each year by reducing exposure to heavy metals like mercury, arsenic, chromium, and nickel; acid gases like sulfur dioxide; and particulate matter.

One major change will be amounts of mercury released into the atmosphere. Under the proposed rule, coal-fired power plants will have to reduce the amount of mercury that they release by about 91%.

Mercury From Power Plants

The nonpartisan, nonprofit group Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) released a list of the 25 biggest mercury-emitting power plants across the U.S in 2009.

Twenty are located within 50-100 miles of some of the nation's biggest cities, including Dallas, Houston, Atlanta, Chicago, Minneapolis, Minn., Detroit, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, St. Louis, and Austin, Texas, according to the EDF.

Three of the five worst offenders are in Texas. The Martin Lake plant near Longview, Texas, and the Big Brown plant near Dallas are No. 1 and No. 2 on the list. Both are operated by Luminant Energy.

In a statement released in response to the report, the company said it had already installed activated carbon injection systems, the primary technology used to control mercury, on all of its coal-fired power plants. A company spokeswoman confirmed that both the Martin Lake plant and the Big Brown plant had gotten the new systems, but said she did not know when they were installed.

"The company remains committed to ongoing improvements in air quality, informed and balanced by an understanding of the impacts on electricity reliability, consumer prices and jobs, as well as the physical and timing constraints associated with installing new control equipment," the statement reads.

Rounding out the top five mercury polluting power plants are Labadie Power Station in Missouri; James H. Miller Jr. Electric Generating Plant in Birmingham, Ala.; and the Limestone Electric Generating Station near Jewett, Texas.

"The pollutants spread all over the country, but they concentrate around these plants," says Janice Nolen, assistant vice president for policy and advocacy for the American Lung Association. "These communities have been suffering for a long, long time."

Mercury, a neurotoxin, can cause mental retardation, cerebral palsy, and deafness and blindness in fetuses and infants. In even low doses, mercury may cause developmental delays, affecting how long it takes kids to walk and talk. Mercury exposure has also been linked to poor attention spans and learning disabilities.

In adults, mercury exposure has been tied to infertility, memory loss, high blood pressure, and blindness; toxicity can cause numbness in the fingers and toes.

"I'm extremely hopeful that we'll see big reductions as a result of this rule," Nolen says.

"Through the commonsense goal of reducing harmful pollution in the air we breathe we'll save lives, prevent illnesses, and promote vital economic opportunities in communities across the country," says EPA administrator Lisa Jackson in public remarks she made before signing the new rule.

Public Comment Period

The standards must now go through a public comment period before being made final in November. Once the rule goes into effect, power plants will have four years to comply.

The EPA estimates it will cost the energy industry about $11 billion a year to meet the regulations, though Jackson noted that many companies had already voluntarily upgraded their plants.

An estimated 44% of power plants lack advanced pollution control equipment.

Some power companies said the costs could become an unwieldy burden, ultimately causing some plants to close.

"Companies facing multiple emission-control requirements under very tight deadlines would face the biggest challenges related to costs and possibly jobs," says Dan Riedinger, a spokesman for Edison Electric Institute, an industry lobbying group.

Riedinger says he hopes that the EPA will be flexible in working with energy producers.

"Regulations should allow for compliance in the most cost-effective manner to avoid undue impacts on customers, the economy, and jobs," he says.

Many health problems have been linked to air pollution, including cancer, heart attacks, strokes, aggravated asthma attacks, bronchitis, and lung disease in addition to the neurological damage caused by mercury and lead poisoning.

"There are no other sources of air pollution in America, beyond power plants, that cause so many premature deaths, and today's standards are the biggest response in a generation to avoiding that death toll."

Top Mercury-Emitting Power Plants

The top 25 mercury-emitting power plants are:

  • Martin Lake, Texas
  • Big Brown, Texas
  • Labadie, Mo.
  • James H. Miller Jr., Ala.
  • Limestone, Texas
  • Monticello, Texas
  • Scherer, Ga.
  • Coal Creek, N.D.
  • Rockport, Ind.
  • James M. Gavin, Ohio
  • Monroe, Mich.
  • W.A. Parish, Texas
  • Sandow No 4, Texas
  • Big Cajun 2, La.
  • Keystone, Pa.
  • Pirkey, Texas
  • Columbia, Wis.
  • Sherburne County, Minn.
  • Milton R. Young, N.D.
  • Independence, Ark.
  • Nebraska City, Neb.
  • Conemaugh, Pa.
  • Colstrip, Mont.
  • Laramie River Stn., Wyo.
  • White Bluff, Ark.


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SOURCES: Proposed Emissions Standards for Coal- and Oil-Fired Electric Power Plants, EPA, Signed March 16, 2011.Fact sheet: Proposed Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, EPA, March 16, 2011.News conference, EPA, March 16, 2011.News release, American Lung Association.American Lung Association: "Toxic Air."Environmental Defense Fund: "Mercury Air Alert: Cleaning Up Coal Plants for Healthier Lives."John Walke, senior attorney, director of clean air, Natural Resources Defense Council, Washington, D.C.Janice Nolen, assistant vice president for policy and advocacy, American Lung Association, Washington, D.C.Statement, Luminant Energy, Dallas.Dan Riedinger, spokesman, Edison Electric Institute, Washington, D.C.

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