Saturday, December 17, 2011

EPA set to impose tough mercury limit at power plants

Reporting from Washington?

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

Though mercury is a known neurotoxin that can be profoundly harmful to children and pregnant women, the air pollution 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 who were briefed in broad terms about it. Scheduled to be formally announced Monday, 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.

Some analysts cautioned that the rule still could be delayed if it got caught up in the political horse-trading in Washington to pass spending legislation. Still, if it lands as expected, the long-awaited rule governing toxic substances 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.

"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 utilities 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 regulation has centered on the amount of mercury that can be emitted and the timetable to install pollution control equipment. In its draft rule, the EPA determined that the industry standard should be 1.2 pounds of mercury per million BTUs of energy produced. Industry wants 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 therefore cannot deviate from it.

The act would give companies 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 Assn., told the White House that 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. 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 at their coal-fired plants.

"EPA's proposed clean-air rules will have a modest impact on plant retirements," Izzo wrote in his 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 toxic substances. Industry has argued that the health benefits of reducing mercury through a federal standard are overstated.

But Walke of the Natural Resources Defense Council said the estimated public health effects had 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.


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