Power Plants Face Stricter EPA Rules to Prevent Toxic Air Pollutants

By Krystina Steffen, Editor – December 28, 2011

For more than two decades the power plant industry was able to evade parts of the Clean Air Act that Congress had passed. Because of this, families living near power plants were still harmed by toxic pollutants in the air. Environmental advocates also fought to implement stricter regulations for mercury, toxins, and other pollutants that many of America’s power plants still emitted. Environmental lawsuits and toxic tort cases have involved the Environmental Protections Agency (EPA) for its ineffective regulations and many power plants for compromising individuals’ health. But in mid December, the regulatory landscape changed after the EPA finalized the national Clean Air Act in regards to reducing mercury and toxic air pollution that coal and oil-fired power plants emit.

The Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) establishes a final rule that mandates that power plants reduce mercury from being released into the air by 90 percent, acid gas emissions reduced by 88 percent, and sulfur dioxide emissions cut by 41 percent. This is beyond the decreases already proposed in the Cross State Air Pollution Rule. [1] A Presidential Memorandum backs up MATS and directs the EPA to use the tools in the Clean Air Act to implement emission controls.

The finalization “…from President Obama and EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson marks a milestone for parents and families across the country. It means that, after decades of delay, we now have strong nationwide protections against toxic mercury, and most of all, it means peace of mind for the parents of more than 300,000 American babies born every year that have been exposed to dangerous levels of mercury,” the Sierra Club commented in a recent press release [2].

Across the United States, there are 600 power plants and approximately 1,400 oil and coal fired electric generating units (EGUs). The EPA states that power plants are the main mercury, acid gas, and toxic metal polluters in the United States. [3] Populations living close to power plants, and, in particular, children have been affected by power plant pollutants. Health issues such as cancer, respiratory illness, and neuro-developmental problems have harmed individuals living near the power plants. And even fish that have been contaminated with mercury runoff can affect individuals thousands of miles away who eat this food source.

“These standards for mercury and other air toxics will help to reduce mercury emissions from power plants and help children across the country avoid preventable birth defects and learning delays and have a brighter, healthier, more productive future. Finally, putting people over politics,” said Adrianna Quintero, Director of Voces Verdes, La Onda Verde de Natural Resources Defense Council. [4]

Before MATS was in place, 48 tons of mercury pollution was pumped into the air each year and also affected U.S. waterways and the fish that thrived there. Why fish become such an important part of the story is this – inorganic mercury seeps into the water and bacteria convert it to methylmercury, which can then accumulate in living tissue. As fish age, the more mercury will be present in its meat. When humans eat fish, they then accumulate mercury in their tissues and hair samples can show elevated concentrations. Testing has shown that 40 percent of human mercury exposure is due to eating Pacific tuna. [5] For sushi lovers or those that eat fish out of preference or to maintain a budget, it can be daunting to know what to eat. The Sierra Club has created a chart for easy reference to make smarter eating decisions. [6]

Put in perspective, 48 tons of mercury could contaminate a 20-acre lake. [7] For those that are experiencing illnesses that are not easily explainable and perplexing doctors, mercury toxicity is noted for causing concentration problems, tremors, balance and coordination concerns, slurred speech, motor skill loss and muscle weakness, decrease in memory, insomnia, loss of vision, hearing, and hair, and long-term damage that can only sometimes be reversed. But for expecting mothers and their newborns, the dangers are even more severe.

More than 300,000 babies have been born each year with dangerous levels of mercury inside the womb. Power plant pollutants can damage a newborn’s developing nervous system and cause cerebral palsy, brain damage, and delayed speech and motor skill development. [8] These pollutants were scientifically proven to cause premature death, hospital visits, and many days of lost work.

With the new MATS, EGUs that are larger than 25 megawatts and generate electricity for residential, industrial, or commercial use will have to comply with these modern pollution controls. [9] For power plants that do not already have adequate pollution control, they will have to utilize wet and dry scrubbers, fabric filters, activated carbon injection systems, or dry sorbent infection systems to comply with the new emission rules. EPA advocates making upgrades to existing pollution controls, installing new ones, or switching fuels to lesson emissions.

Power plants will have until 2016 to get their facilities compliant with MATS. For environmental advocates this is long overdue as many power plants are more than 30-years-old, with some even over the 50-year-old mark. The EPA estimates that for every dollar spent, $3 to $9 of health benefits will be created. [10] EPA’s analysis shows that power plants should be able to retrofit or build these pollution controls in a cost effective way that also ensures electric reliability. After plants have these measures in place, EPA will conduct annual performance tests and inspections. With MATS, airborne soot levels should also decrease.

As the MATS rule takes effect, the EPA estimates that 540,000 sick days from work will be avoided. Air quality improvement and human health costs will improve by a minimum of $37 billion, the agency predicts. [11] Premature deaths will decrease by a minimum of 18,000, emergency room visits will lessen by 13,000, and 540,000 asthma attacks due to power plant pollution will not occur.

“The overall cost of the regulations is expected to reach $10 billion a year, with homeowners paying perhaps three percent more on their electricity bills,” noted a Los Angeles Times editorial. [12] “But it’s not as though the country hasn’t been paying that and more over the years; the price of high pollution levels has simply been pushed into the health sector in the form of higher rates of illness.”

[1] http://www.epa.gov/mats/pdfs/20111221MATSimpactsfs.pdf

[2] http://action.sierraclub.org/site/MessageViewer?em_id=223181.0&dlv_id=0

[3] http://www.epa.gov/mats/pdfs/20111221MATSimpactsfs.pdf

[4] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/adrianna-quintero/a-long-awaited-victory-fo_b_1163581.html?ref=green

[5] http://www.sierraclub.org/sierra/201111/mercury.aspx

[6] http://www.sierraclub.org/sierra/201111/Whatfish_graphic.pdf

[7] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/adrianna-quintero/a-long-awaited-victory-fo_b_1163581.html?ref=green

[8] http://www.sierraclub.org/sierra/201111/mercury.aspx

[9] http://www.epa.gov/mats/pdfs/20111221MATSsummaryfs.pdf

[10] http://www.epa.gov/mats/pdfs/20111221MATSimpactsfs.pdf

[11] Id.

[12] http://articles.latimes.com/2011/dec/23/opinion/la-ed-adv-mercury-20111223

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