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U.S. to impose sharp limits on mercury emissions

By Neela Banerjee, Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — The Environmental Protection Agency is expected Friday to approve a tough new rule to limit emissions of mercury, arsenic and other toxins from the country’s power plants, according to people with knowledge of the new standard.

Though mercury is a known neurotoxin profoundly harmful to children and pregnant women, the air-toxins rule has been more than 20 years in the making, repeatedly stymied because of objections from coal-burning utilities about the cost of installing pollution-control equipment.

The new regulation is not expected to differ markedly in its rigorous emissions targets and timetable from a draft rule proposed by the EPA in March, said people briefed on the rule in broad terms. Scheduled to be announced Monday, the rule follows several Obama administration decisions to shelve environmental rules to mollify a sharply critical business community, including a high-profile decision this summer to halt new standards to cut smog.

Some analysts said the rule still could be delayed if it gets caught up in the political negotiations to pass spending legislation. Still, if it lands as expected, the long-awaited rule governing toxins is sure to rile powerful utilities and their congressional allies who have lobbied the administration over the past few weeks to weaken or delay the standards.

“Clean air will be the biggest environmental accomplishment of the Obama administration, and the forthcoming mercury rule will be the crowning achievement of an already strong clean air resume,” said John Walke, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Clean Air Program.

Scott Segal, director of the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, an industry lobbying group, said the sweeping implications of the new rule mean that industry would not accept them easily.

“In the history of the Clean Air Act, there has never been a greater intervention into the power sector than with this regulation,” Segal said. “So it stands to reason that we will likely see a substantial amount of litigation around this.”

The EPA and the administration declined to comment on the pending rule.

The fight to dilute the new rule has centered on the amount of mercury that can be emitted, and the timetable to install pollution control equipment. In its draft rule from March, the EPA determined that the industry standard be 1.2 pounds of mercury per million BTUs of energy produced. Industry wants 1.4 pounds. But EPA arrived at its standard based on a formula set out under the Clean Air Act, and analysts said the agency cannot deviate from a formula established by law.

The act would give companies three years to clean up their emissions of mercury and about 70 other toxins, and utilities could appeal for at least one more year as they installed the necessary equipment. Much of industry has argued that the timetable is too tight and could lead to rolling blackouts, with one group, the American Public Power Assn., telling the White House its members needed more than seven years to comply with the mercury rule.

Over the last few weeks, however, the timetable argument has been undermined by dissension within industry itself. Most notably, Ralph Izzo, chairman of the Newark, N.J.-based utility Public Service Enterprise Group, wrote a letter to the Wall Street Journal in which he said that companies have known for decades that the mercury rule would take effect and some, like his, have already installed the needed equipment on their coal-fired plants.

“EPA’s proposed clean-air rules will have a modest impact on plant retirements,” Izzo wrote in a rebuttal to a story in the newspaper. “Regulations are not the death knell you would have everyone believe, but provide a clear path for responsible coal generation. Action is long overdue.”

About a dozen states have already approved rules to cut mercury and other toxins. Industry has argued that the health benefits of reducing mercury through a federal standard are overstated.
But Walke said the estimated public health effects have played a considerable role so far in getting the administration to stick to the standards it proposed in March. People get exposed to mercury mainly by eating contaminated fish. Mercury exposure damages the developing brains of fetuses and children.

The EPA estimates that by 2016, the proposed rules could avert between 6,800 to 17,000 premature deaths annually, a greater benefit than most other federal health and environmental rules are estimated to achieve.
©2011 Tribune Co.

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