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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

EPA to tighten limits on mercury and other pollutants from power plants

A coal power plant in Colver, Penn., July 11, 2022. The Biden administration said Wednesday, April 5, 2023, that it would require coal and oil-fired power plants to reduce emissions of several hazardous air pollutants, including mercury, a neurotoxin that can cause developmental problems in infants and children.

By Lisa Friedman

The Biden administration said earlier this week that it would require coal- and oil-fired power plants to reduce emissions of several hazardous air pollutants, including mercury, a neurotoxin that can cause developmental problems in infants and children.

The proposed rule from the Environmental Protection Agency has two broad policy aims: reduce dangerous toxins in the environment while also encouraging the transition away from coal-burning power plants and toward cleaner energy sources like solar and wind.

The proposal sets up a likely legal battle with the coal industry and several Republican-led states, which fought to block a previous effort to regulate mercury under the Obama administration. The Obama-era rule, which took effect in 2012, was credited with reducing mercury emissions by about 90%.

However, the EPA found that mercury coming from power plants still posed a risk to human health. So the new rule aims to strengthen the limits for mercury emissions from affected coal-burning power plants by 70%. It also would further restrict other toxic pollutants like lead, nickel and arsenic.

Michael Regan, the EPA administrator, said in a statement that the rule would not be expensive for plant operators to implement because of new technologies that are available for monitoring and controlling of emissions.

”By leveraging proven emissions-reduction measures available at reasonable costs and encouraging new, advanced control technologies, we can reduce hazardous pollution from coal-fired power plants, protecting our planet and improving public health for all,” Regan said.

The new Mercury and Air Toxics Standards rule would not directly reduce the greenhouse gas emissions from power plants that are driving climate change. But it is one of several recent EPA regulations targeting toxins emitted from smokestacks and coal ash ponds that could have that effect indirectly, by making coal plants too costly to operate.

Regan has in the past suggested that an aspect of the Biden administration’s climate strategy, by cracking down on pollutants, is to encourage operators of coal plants to shut them down or make a transition to renewable energy.

“By presenting all of those rules at the same time to the industry,” Regan said at an oil and gas conference last year, “the industry gets a chance to take a look at this suite of rules all at once and say, ‘Is it worth doubling down in investments in this current facility? Or should we look at that cost and say now it’s time to pivot and invest in a clean energy future?’”

On Wednesday, Regan said the new rule would ensure “historic protections” for communities located near power plants. Known as fenceline communities, they are typically home to low-income people of color who suffer from elevated rates of asthma, cancer and other health effects. The Biden administration has made it a priority to address the disproportionate environmental burdens carried by such communities.

The proposal drew criticism from Republicans and the coal industry.

Michelle Bloodworth, president and CEO of America’s Power, a trade group that advocates for coal-powered electricity, said the industry is concerned that the combined effect of EPA’s regulations will lead to premature retirements of coal plants. The industry group has argued if coal plants shutter too quickly, it will hurt the reliability of the electricity grid.

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., said the Biden administration “continues to wage war on coal” with the regulation. Capito called the regulation unnecessary and said that it “put politics over sound policy.”

Democrats praised the proposal and said it will lead to health improvements nationwide.

“The Mercury and Air Toxics Standards continue to be a remarkable, cost-effective success in reducing mercury and other toxic air pollution,” Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del. and chair of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, said in a statement. He said the new rule “will help save lives.”

The EPA estimated that the health benefits over the lifetime of the rule would be between $2.4 billion and $3 billion, from the prevention of deaths or hospitalizations for respiratory and cardiovascular disease. The agency put the estimated cost to the industry of complying with the rule at between $230 million and $300 million.

“Childhood exposure to mercury has very profound health effects,” said Matthew Davis, a vice president of federal policy at the League of Conservation Voters and a former EPA official whose research underpinned the first rules cutting mercury emissions from coal power plants.

He called the proposed rule significant.

“On top of that, we are seeing the climate impacts from fossil fuel combustion, and certainly coal plants are contributing to that crisis,” Davis said. “So any rules that address coal-fired power plants and perhaps make it less viable for some of those to continue operating also has a big impact in our transition to cleaner electricity.”

The EPA will accept public comments on the proposed rule for 60 days and will hold a public hearing before a final rule would take effect, most likely next year. Many Republican lawmakers are expected to oppose the rule. Last month, the Biden administration restored a rule that gives the government a legal foundation to regulate mercury, which had been stripped away by the Trump administration. The Biden administration’s move also prompted criticism from coal-state lawmakers at the time.

The Biden administration is pairing regulations with offers to provide financial help to coal communities. On Monday, the White House announced that it was making $450 million available for solar farms and other clean energy projects at the site of current or former coal mines.

In making the announcement, the White House took a jab at the Trump administration, which had promised, and failed, to deliver a coal renaissance.

“President Biden came to the White House to end years of big words but little action to help energy-producing parts of the country,” a White House fact sheet said.

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