This week the Environmental Protection Agency is expected to release new standards for coal- and oil-fired power plants that will limit the emissions of 84 different "air toxics," including mercury, benzene, hydrogen chloride and radioactive material.
According to EPA, American coal plants produce 386,000 tons of hazardous air pollutants per year. The toxins they release — hazardous chemicals that can lead to disease, brain damage and premature death — affect every part of the human body. Arsenic, chromium and nickel cause cancer; lead damages the nervous system; acid gases irritate the nose and throat; dioxins affect the reproductive endocrine and immune systems; and volatile organic compounds weaken lungs and eyes.
Congress amended the Clean Air Act in 1990 to control industrial emissions of hazardous air pollutants, but coal-fired power plants were exempt until 2000. More than ten years later, the standards will finally be released for public comment and finalized in November.
The importance of these regulations to public health and welfare are being obscured by the ongoing fight in Congress to limit EPA’s role in regulating greenhouse gases, which, though related, is a separate matter from the regulation of these toxic emissions.
"[The coal] industry is the largest unregulated source of air toxics in the country," Ann Weeks, senior counsel at the Clean Air Task Force, a Boston-based environmental group, told SolveClimate News. "I look at the depth of information that we have, and every new scientific study points to regulating this industry."
Mercury is among the most notorious of toxins. It damages the kidneys, liver and nervous system. Infants are especially vulnerable — even small amounts can cause birth defects and permanently lower IQs.
In 2004, EPA introduced an alternative plan to regulate mercury using a cap-and-trade program for power plants. However, it would not have achieved reductions beyond those imposed by existing rules, said Weeks, and it did not address air toxics aside from mercury.
Various environmental organizations, including the Clean Air Task Force, sued EPA for better pollution controls. The courts ruled against the mercury program in 2008, and the EPA is now under a legal obligation to propose air toxics standards by March 16.
The details of the upcoming standards are unclear. An EPA spokesperson said the agency does not comment on regulatory action until it is released to the public.
Mercury Pollution at the Top of the List
Coal plants in the U.S. emitted over 130,000 pounds of mercury in 2009. Once mercury exits the flue, it becomes airborne and can travel for hundreds of miles. Precipitation deposits the mercury in water, where it builds up in fish. Every single state has set fish advisories due to mercury levels in waterways, the report says.
"I just think the bottom line is that mercury shouldn't be in our air and in our water," said Audrey Richardson, clean energy associate at Environment Massachusetts, a group within Environment America.
Citing the report, Richardson said one in six American women carries enough mercury in her blood to put her child at risk if she became pregnant. "It's impossible to put a price on a child's well-being ... that's why we're calling for the EPA to make a strong enough ruling."
Environment America hopes to slash mercury emissions by over 90 percent.
"That technology was feasible in 2005 and technology has improved since then, so it's very possible for power plants to cut emissions by [more than 90 percent]," said Richardson.
The Clean Air Act requires the use of Maximum Achievable Control Technology (MACT). The EPA has spent the past year collecting data from existing coal plants, said Weeks, and the upcoming standards — called MACT standards — will be based on emission levels from the top 12 percent of least-polluting power plants.
Industry Reactions Expected to Vary
Backlash from many industry groups is expected once the rules are released.
"The rules have been expected for some time ... It's impossible for me to speak to it at this point," said Lisa Camooso Miller, vice president for media relations at the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, a trade group of coal firms, utilities and railroads. Miller said she would have specific comments once the standards are made public.
The Edison Electric Institute, a utility trade association, could not be reached for comment.
Industry opposition to MACT rules for boilers, which the EPA released last month, provides a good indication of how at least some groups will respond when MACT rules for air toxics are made public this week.