EPA unveils regulations to reduce airborne mercury

Posted Dec. 21, 2011, at 7:47 p.m.

Maine regulators as well as health and environmental organizations are cheering new federal rules announced Wednesday that are expected to reduce the amount of airborne mercury pollution drifting into the state from coal-fired power plants in other states.

The new rules unveiled by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are being described as a long-overdue step toward requiring the nation’s dirtiest power plants to either significantly reduce emissions of mercury and other toxic pollutants or shut down.

More than 20 years in the making, the rules are the first national standards targeting power plants’ emissions of mercury — a powerful neurotoxin that can affect child development and adult health — as well as arsenic, cyanide and other pollutants. The new standards are expected to affect roughly 40 percent of the nation’s 1,100 coal-fired plants.

None of those coal-fired plants are located in Maine. But because of geography and atmospheric patterns, significant quantities of airborne mercury blow into Maine from upwind coal-fired power plants in Pennsylvania, Ohio and other northeastern and midwestern states. Some of that mercury is eventually deposited in soils or water, posing potentially serious health risks to humans, especially children and pregnant women.

“I believe this [rule] has the potential to be a significant improvement for us. But not immediately, unfortunately,” said Melanie Loyzim, director of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection’s Bureau of Air Quality.

Affected power plants will have until 2016 to either install pollution control equipment, switch to cleaner-burning natural gas or shut down, according to the EPA. When fully implemented, the standards are expected to slash mercury pollution from burning coal by 90 percent, lung-damaging acid gases by 88 percent and soot-producing sulfur dioxide by 41 percent, The Associated Press reported.

Congress authorized the EPA to regulate toxic air pollution from power plants back in 1990. More than 20 years later, however, hundreds of coal- and oil-fired plants still lack modern pollution controls.

“Before this rule, there were no national standards limiting the amount of mercury, arsenic, chromium, nickel and acid gases that power plants across the country could release into the air that we breathe,” EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said Wednesday during a press conference at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington.

In October 2008, Maine joined six other northeastern states in petitioning the EPA to crack down on mercury pollution drifting into the region from smokestacks in other states. The DEP’s Loyzim said some mercury pollution in Maine comes from local sources, such as industries that discharged the neurotoxin into waterways. But Loyzim said air pollution represents a significant — if not the leading — contributor of mercury in the state.

“We do believe, at this point, that the bulk of mercury we see deposited that comes from the air is coming from out-of-state,” she said.

The EPA estimates that the new standards will prevent as many as 11,000 premature deaths nationwide as well as 130,000 cases of childhood asthma symptoms and about 6,300 cases of acute bronchitis among children each year.

Maine has among the highest asthma rates in the nation, and state health officials advise residents to limit or avoid eating fish from more than a dozen waterways — including stretches of the Penobscot, Kennebec and Androscoggin rivers — because of mercury pollution. Pregnant women, mothers who are nursing and children under age 8 are advised to avoid eating all freshwater fish in Maine except one meal of brook trout and landlocked salmon per month.

For those reasons and others, Ed Miller with the American Lung Association of New England said the new rules can’t take effect soon enough from his organization’s perspective.

“These rules typify why we need a strong Clean Air Act,” Miller said. “It is the only tool we have to control pollution that comes into this state from out of state.”

“It’s abundantly clear that people in Maine and across the country want cleaner air, healthier kids, and less toxic pollution spewed into our air, and thankfully, President Obama and EPA are taking action,” Anika James, field associate with Environment Maine, said in a statement. “This landmark standard will improve Mainers’ quality of life and protect children today and for generations to come from known poisons.”

The mercury rule is the most significant in a series of major air quality initiatives launched by the Obama administration. Earlier this year, the EPA unveiled the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule that requires states to reduce power plant emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide — the two key ingredients in ground-level smog.

“The Cross-State Rule is literally a lifesaver,” Jackson said in a conference call with reporters.

Nonetheless, the mercury rules have encountered considerable opposition from the power industry because of the anticipated costs — estimated at $9.6 billion annually — making it one of the most expensive in the agency’s history, according to The Associated Press.

Critics such as the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity — an industry trade group — also predicted the rule would eliminate large numbers of jobs, increase electricity costs and possibly undermine the electric grid’s reliability. The EPA, however, predicts the rules will be a net job creator, leading to 46,000 construction jobs and 8,000 permanent positions.

The rules still could prove contentious among some in Congress, especially those from coal country or states where power is cheap because of heavy use of coal. On Wednesday, Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe, the top Republican on the Senate’s environment committee, said he would file a joint resolution, a rarely used congressional tactic, to get the rule overturned.

But Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe, a Republican who has worked for stronger mercury pollution policies, said she was encouraged by the EPA standards because people in Maine have been bearing the health costs of other states’ reliance on coal.

“It is unacceptable that these costs are simply transferred from one region to another and that is why I have long supported reducing mercury pollution with cost-effective technologies,” Snowe said in a statement. “I am encouraged that this rule will significantly reduce mercury pollution in Maine and I look forward to reviewing this final rule to ensure it provides Maine families the healthy air they deserve while not overburdening our country’s electricity system.”

The Associated Press also contributed to this report.

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