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U.S. to impose sharp limits on mercury emissions

This news story was published on December 16, 2011.
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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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5 Responses to U.S. to impose sharp limits on mercury emissions

  1. Observer Reply Report comment

    December 17, 2011 at 4:28 pm

    Perhaps instead of crying about the CES proposal, we should fine any consumer $1500 for every time they dispose batteries or lamps which contain mercury.

    Mason City needs garbage police!

  2. Observer Reply Report comment

    December 17, 2011 at 4:25 pm

    I searched through my trash this afternoon. There is not one item in it that has mercury. I imagine my trash is just like yours, except I have far less of it. There are no batteries, lamps, or dental fillings in it.

    So in reality, it depends upon the consumer to make sure he or she is not dumping hazardous waste for someone else to clean up. And don’t look for the Landfill of North Iowa to help, they don’t want the batteries either, or they make it so bloody inconvenient to dispose of, a lot of folks just end up throwing them in the trash.

    In reality, if they cared (N.I. Landfill et. al), disposal would be available at collection sites in the cities involved.

    But folks would rather attack CES, instead of their friends and neighbors for a problem in which they themselves cause.

  3. Carol Patnode Reply Report comment

    December 16, 2011 at 6:26 pm

    Yes, these standards apply to North Iowa. I have been involved with the CES project and a rep from the DNR told a group at the North Iowa Landfill Board meeting that the EPA/feds were improving the standards (lots if scientific data show the current ones are not protecting human health) but that CES would not be expected to meet them because of the timing.

  4. Grateful in MC Reply Report comment

    December 16, 2011 at 1:03 pm

    NIT this site looks amazing. You should be very proud. Congratulations and thanks for all your hard work and many hours in getting news to North Iowans

  5. Clean air Reply Report comment

    December 16, 2011 at 11:06 am

    Do these standards apply here in North Iowa???