The Environmental Protection Agency released far-reaching air pollution regulations Wednesday, 21 years after they were first mandated by Congress and six days after they were signed by the agency.
The rules require coal- and oil-fired power plants to lower emissions of 84 different toxic chemicals to levels no higher than those emitted by the cleanest 12% of plants. Companies have three years to achieve the standards, and EPA has made clear a fourth year and perhaps even more time are also available to them.
"We're delighted," says Janice Nolen of the American Lung Association. "After waiting 21 years, it looks like we may actually have a rule that will help to save 11,000 lives a year and reduce exposure all across the country to a bunch of really toxic substances."
"It's hard to overstate the significance of this rule," says John Walke of the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group. "This is a generational achievement, that mark's America cleaning up dirty power plants once and for all."
The EPA rules govern multiple toxics, including mercury, arsenic, nickel, selenium and cyanide.
Power plants are responsible for half of the mercury and more than 75% of the acid gas emissions in the United States, the EPA says. The EPA estimates that about half the nation's power plants already have pollution control technologies in place. This rule will "level the playing field" in the agency's words, by ensuring that the rest, about 40% of all coal-fired plants, take similar steps.
By EPA estimates, the rules will prevent as many as 11,000 premature deaths and 4,700 heart attacks a year, as well as preventing 130,000 cases of childhood asthma symptoms.
Coal-fired burners are the main concern of the regulation, as oil-fired burners are less popular given high oil prices. There are about 1,100 coal-fired burners being used at 600 power plants nationwide, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson told USA TODAY. Currently, 12% of the nation's coal-fired power plants already meet the standards, by definition. Another 48% have some if not all of the necessary technologies in place to meet the standards.
The remaining 40% "have done nothing, they have no controls, they emit unlimited amounts of pollutants, they have no technology in place," Jackson says. These plants are the focus of the regulations.
But the industry argues the cost of meeting these rules could bring economic hardship.
American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity President and CEO Steve Miller said Wednesday. "The EPA is out of touch with the hard reality facing American families and businesses. This latest rule will destroy jobs, raise the cost of energy and could even make electricity less reliable."
The coalition plans to study the new rule but says it may risk jobs and access to affordable electricity. If so, it will ask Congress to "step in," Miller says. "People's jobs, their family budgets and their access to affordable electricity are at stake."
There was a furious eleventh-hour push by some utility groups in the past two weeks "to try to kill this, but in the end too many pieces of the power industry were saying, 'We can do this,' " says Jim Pew of Earthjustice, a public interest law group.
Advertisements suggesting that the United States will experience power blackouts because of the new rules "are greatly overblown," EPA's Jackson says. Modeling done by EPA, Congress and the Department of Energy all suggest there's no danger of that.
"This is just a scare tactic," she says. Utilities are crassly "asking Americans to choose between mercury in their and their children's bodies, and power." That's not what's happening, Jackson says.
There's nothing in the rule requiring these plants to be shut down, only that they need to be cleaned up, she says. Analysis has shown that these plants are, on average, 50 years old.
"It's just like your car. You have to make a determination of how much you want to put into a clunker when it starts to see the end of its useful life. Companies will have to make business decisions," Jackson says.