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EPA releases long-awaited power plant air toxics rule

Standard seen as a win for environmental and public health groups

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NRG Energy's W.A. Parish Electric Generating Station, in Thompsons, Texas. 

The Associated Press

Environmental Protection Agency chief Lisa Jackson released the details of a regulation that would cut air emissions of mercury and other toxics from coal- and oil-fired power plants for the first time.

The new standard is seen as a victory for environmentalists and public health advocates, who have pushed the EPA to reduce emissions from the power industry since the passage of the Clean Air Act amendments of 1990. While the standard was issued last Friday, interest groups said the Obama administration made supporters wait until bickering in Congress died down so the landmark rule could have the spotlight.

“Last week, we finalized the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, or MATS, a rule that will protect millions of families and, especially, children from air pollution,” Jackson said at the Children’s National Medical Center in Washington on Wednesday. “Before this rule, there were no national standards that limited the amount of mercury, arsenic, chromium, nickel and acid gases power plants across the country could release into the air we breathe.”

Mercury, a coal combustion byproduct, is a potent neurotoxin linked to decreased motors skills and lower IQs. It’s among nearly 200 hazardous chemicals, known as air toxics, which have been the subject of the Poisoned Places series by the Center for Public Integrity’s iWatch News and NPR.

The EPA predicts the new standard will prevent as many as 11,000 premature deaths and 130,000 cases of childhood asthma annually when it is fully implemented in 2016. At that point, the agency estimates, the total health and economic benefits could be as much as $90 billion a year – nearly 10 times more than the $9.7 billion in costs associated with the rule.

The rule is a personal victory for Jackson, who told the audience of her children’s struggles with asthma. “Fifteen years ago, my youngest son spent his first Christmas in the hospital fighting to breathe. Like any parent of a child with asthma, I can tell you that the benefits of clean air protections like MATS are not just statistics and abstract concepts,” she said.

The only significant change made to the rule before Wednesday’s announcement was the addition of more flexibility for power plants seeking to add pollution controls. The 150 oil-burning and 1,500 coal-fired power plants in the U.S. will now have an additional year to install smokestack scrubbers and other pollution-catching filters. Building and deploying this technology could provide 46,000 short-term construction jobs and 8,000 long-term utility jobs for American workers, the EPA said.

Jackson also used the event to bolster the Obama administration’s clean air credentials. “EPA is rounding out a year of incredible progress on clean air in America with another action that will benefit the American people for years to come,” she said, citing the previously finalized Cross-State Air Pollution Rule.

Although environmental groups and public health advocates had near- universal praise for the administration after the announcement, President Obama has not been as supportive of air pollution restrictions in the past. In September he personally asked Jackson to withdraw a stronger ozone rule that would have prevented an estimated 4,300 premature deaths annually, citing “the importance of reducing regulatory burdens.”

The unveiling of the rule came a day after the U.S. Geological Survey reported that mercury levels in lakes near several major cities was about four times higher than in rural lakes. Coal-fired power plants are the largest single source of mercury emissions, the USGS noted.

“The results illustrate the importance of reducing mercury emissions in the U.S. and not only focusing on emissions globally,” said USGS scientist Peter Van Metre, who authored the study.