EPA Issues Historic National Standards for Mercury Pollution from Power Plants

Dec. 22, 2011
EPA on Dec. 21 issued the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, the first national standards to protect Americans from power plant emissions of mercury and toxic air pollution like arsenic, acid gas, nickel, selenium and cyanide. The standards will slash emissions of these substances by relying on widely available, proven pollution controls that are already in use at more than half of the nation's coal-fired power plants.

"Since toxic air pollution from power plants can make people sick and cut lives short, the new Mercury and Air Toxics Standards are a huge victory for public health," said Albert A. Rizzo, MD, national volunteer chair of the American Lung Association, and pulmonary and critical care physician in Newark, Del. "The Lung Association expects all oil and coal-fired power plants to act now to protect all Americans, especially our children, from the health risks imposed by these dangerous air pollutants."

EPA estimates that the new safeguards will prevent as many as 11,000 premature deaths and 4,700 heart attacks a year. The standards will also help America’s children grow up healthier – preventing 130,000 cases of childhood asthma symptoms and about 6,300 fewer cases of acute bronchitis among children each 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," said EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson. "The Mercury and Air Toxics Standards will protect millions of families and children from harmful and costly air pollution and provide the American people with health benefits that far outweigh the costs of compliance."

More than 20 years ago, a bipartisan Congress passed the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments and mandated that EPA require control of toxic air pollutants including mercury. To meet this requirement, EPA worked extensively with stakeholders, including industry, to minimize cost and maximize flexibilities in these final standards. There were more than 900,000 public comments that helped inform the final standards.

Part of this feedback encouraged EPA to ensure the standards focused on readily available and widely deployed pollution control technologies, that are not only manufactured by companies in the United States, but also support short-term and long-term jobs.

That's not enough, claim some critics. "EPA's MACT rule is the most expensive rule in the agency's history," said Tom Kuhn, president of the Edison Electric Institute, the association of U.S. shareholder-owned electric companies. "It will require a significant number of electric generating units to design, obtain approval for and install complex controls or replacements in a very short timeframe. In some cases, it will mean that new transmission and natural gas pipelines will have to be built."

Kuhn also said the Obama administration is underestimating "the complexity of implementing this rule in such a short period of time, which can create reliability challenges and even higher costs to customers. The administration is not using all the available authorities in the Clean Air Act to coordinate implementation, to ensure electric reliability and to avoid excessive costs."

Supporters of the rule view any additional costs as money well spent.

"We recognize that some critics cite adverse economic impacts of tighter standards," said Bill McLin, president and CEO of the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA). "However, this new rule will not only avoid lost wages for patients and parents of children with asthma, lost productivity for the companies that employ them and increased hospital admissions, it also will create 31,000 construction jobs and 9,000 long-term utility jobs while increasing the demand for investments in energy efficiency and clean technology."

According to McLin, 20 million Americans suffer from asthma. "This new rule will help protect the health of those most at risk: children, teens, seniors and people with chronic lung diseases like asthma," he added. "According to the EPA, the new Mercury and Air Toxics Standards Rule will prevent an estimated 17,000 premature deaths and 11,000 heart attacks, in addition to eliminating 120,000 incidents of asthma symptoms and 11,000 cases of acute bronchitis in children each year."

Power plants are the largest remaining source of several toxic air pollutants, including mercury, arsenic, cyanide, and a range of other dangerous pollutants, and are responsible for half of the mercury and over 75 percent of the acid gas emissions in the United States.

For more information, visit http://www.epa.gov/mats/.

About the Author

Sandy Smith

Sandy Smith is the former content director of EHS Today, and is currently the EHSQ content & community lead at Intelex Technologies Inc. She has written about occupational safety and health and environmental issues since 1990.

Sponsored Recommendations

Free Webinar: ISO 45001 – A Commitment to Occupational Health, Safety & Personal Wellness

May 30, 2024
Secure a safer and more productive workplace using proven Management Systems ISO 45001 and ISO 45003.

ISO 45003 – Psychological Health and Safety at Work

May 30, 2024
ISO 45003 offers a comprehensive framework to expand your existing occupational health and safety program, helping you mitigate psychosocial risks and promote overall employee...

DH Pace, national door and dock provider, reduces TRIR and claims with EHS solution

May 29, 2024
Find out how DH Pace moved from paper/email/excel to an EHS platform, changing their culture. They reduced TRIR from 4.8 to 1.46 and improved their ability to bid on and win contracts...

Case Study: Improve TRIR from 4+ to 1 with EHS Solution and Safety Training

May 29, 2024
Safety training and EHS solutions improve TRIR for Complete Mechanical Services, leading to increased business. Moving incidents, training, and other EHS procedures into the digital...

Voice your opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of EHS Today, create an account today!