WASHINGTON — The Obama administration on Wednesday announced a tough new rule to limit emissions of mercury, arsenic and other toxic substances from sources such as power plants, a landmark measure that could prevent up to 11,000 premature deaths annually, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Although mercury is a known neurotoxin that can be profoundly harmful to children and pregnant women, there has never been a federal rule setting a standard for its release into the air from power plants. The current rule has been more than 20 years in the making, stymied repeatedly by objections from coal-burning utilities — the biggest source of mercury and other acid gases — and about the cost of installing pollution-control equipment.
The new regulation does not differ markedly in its rigorous emissions targets and timetable from a draft rule proposed in March, despite fierce lobbying to change it. It gives utilities three years to install pollution-control equipment called scrubbers, with the opportunity for extensions from regulators on a case-by-case basis.
The rule follows on the heels of several Obama administration decisions to shelve environmental standards to mollify a sharply critical business community, including a high-profile decision this summer to halt new standards to cut smog. The long-awaited rule governing air toxins is sure to rile powerful utilities and their congressional allies who have doggedly lobbied the administration over the last few weeks to weaken or delay the standards.
Said EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson said in a statement: “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.”
Environmentalists applauded the step as a historic leap in efforts to curtail air pollution. “We can breathe easier today,” said Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, in an emailed statement. “Dirty coal-fired power plants will have to clean up the toxic soup of emissions that is polluting our air and making people sick, especially children. This critical update to the Clean Air Act will reduce child developmental delays, asthma attacks, heart attacks, and cancer; and save tens of thousands of lives.”
Scott Segal, director of the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, an industry lobbying group, said the sweeping implications of the new rule mean that utilities would not accept them easily.
Under the new rule, power plants can emit 1.2 pounds of mercury per million BTUs of energy produced. Industry had sought a limit of 1.4 pounds. But the EPA arrived at its figure based on a formula set out under the Clean Air Act, and analysts said the agency could not deviate from it.
Companies would have three years to clean up their emissions of mercury and about 70 other toxic substances, and utilities could appeal for at least one more year as they install the necessary equipment. Much of industry has argued that the timetable is too tight and could lead to rolling blackouts. One group, the American Public Power Association, told the White House that its members needed more than seven years to comply with the mercury rule.
About a dozen states have already approved rules to cut mercury and other toxic substances. A recent study by air quality regulators in the Northeast showed that Massachusetts’ aggressive efforts since 1998 to reduce mercury emissions have slashed emissions by more than 90 percent. Industry has argued that the health benefits of reducing mercury through a federal standard are overstated.
But the estimated public health effects had played a considerable role so far in getting the administration to stick to standards it proposed in March, environmentalists said. Power plants account for about half of mercury emissions and more than 70 percent of acid gases.
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 4,700 heart attacks a year and prevent 130,000 cases of childhood asthma symptoms.