WASHINGTON – After years of delays and false starts under both Democratic and Republican administrations, the Environmental Protection Agency is close to finishing two measures to reduce pollution from coal-fired power plants.
Health experts say the pollution reductions will save thousands of lives every year by sparing people asthma attacks, heart attacks and other health problems. Coal-dependent power companies that face big bills for new equipment in response to the EPA rules are calling for more time, arguing that electric rates will rise, harming households and industries.
One of the rules, expected in final form as early as today, would force states in the eastern half of the country to reduce pollutants that travel hundreds of miles to create dangerously bad air days in other states. The other rule, due in November and the subject of much wrangling, will be the first national requirement to reduce mercury, lead, arsenic and other toxic pollutants from coal-fired power plants.
While other industries have been required to make the same cleanups under federal law over the past 21 years, the power sector has gotten special consideration because of its importance to the economy. Coal-fired power plants today are the largest source of mercury, arsenic and other hazardous substances in air pollution.
The EPA’s proposed rule aimed at reducing pollution between states is a court-ordered revision of a Bush administration rule from 2005. The EPA proposed a new version last August. Companies would be required to comply in 2012.
The EPA’s plan to cut toxic pollution, including mercury, is getting most of the attention. Not all power companies oppose it. Some, particularly those that use cleaner fuels such as natural gas, have publicly supported it. In addition, some with coal-burning plants already have invested in the pollution controls, often prompted by state laws.
The EPA says that about 44 percent of the nation’s more than 440 coal-fired power plants haven’t installed the pollution-control equipment they’ll need.
There are 84 hazardous air pollutants from power plants, including acid gases, dioxins, lead and other metals, and mercury. Many are carcinogens. Many also are linked to childhood developmental problems. The best-known is mercury.
Mercury settles in water and accumulates in fish. Ingesting it can cause developmental birth defects and damage a child’s memory and ability to learn. Mercury also damages the kidneys and liver.