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EPA cracks the whip on coal-fired power plants

In a move praised by activists but criticized by industry as potentially driving up electricity costs, the Obama administration has agreed to set mercury and soot emission rules on coal-fired power plants.
Image: a flock of geese fly past a smokestack
This coal-fired power plant near Emmitt, Kan., is one of 1,300 across the United States that are likely to face mandatory reductions of mercury and soot starting in 2011.Charlie Riedel / AP file
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In a move praised by activists as a way to save lives but criticized by industry as potentially driving up electricity costs, the Obama administration has agreed to adopt rules reducing toxic emissions of mercury, soot and other chemicals from all coal-fired power plants in the U.S.

In a consent decree issued late Thursday aimed at ending a lawsuit brought by health and environmental groups, the Environmental Protection Agency agreed to set  new rules by Nov. 16, 2011.

A representative for the groups praised the EPA's move. "Power plants are the largest unregulated industrial source of air toxics," James Pew of Earthjustice said in a statement. "It is unconscionable that 19 years after the Clean Air Act of 1990, we still do not have air toxics controls on these large existing sources of pollution."

The focus of the lawsuit was on mercury. Around 1,300 coal-fired power plants operate across the U.S., emitting some 50 tons of mercury annually into the air.

Children and pregnant women are at greatest risk from mercury pollution, and all 50 states have issued advisories warning about mercury contamination in fish.

The power industry had argued that technology to trap mercury emissions was costly and not as mature or effective as that for other pollutants.

Dan Riedinger, a spokesman for the Edison Electric Institute, which represents major power companies, said that costs could be passed onto consumers.

That kind of technology "can be capital intensive" and regulated utilities often pass on such costs to the customer, he said.

But he added that the industry hopes newer technology can also be deployed by 2011 that reduces that cost.

Riedinger emphasized that since the rules have yet to be established, "it really is wait-and-see."

"Until we know the level of reduction it's very difficult to ballpark what the cost might be to consumers," he added.

"Our hope would be that we'd have a few different options" to meet the rules "under a least-cost approach," he said.

Soot cuts expected, too
John Walke, senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, noted that the rule would also mean big cuts in "soot pollution that leads to asthma, bronchitis, heart attacks and strokes."

The plaintiffs filed the lawsuit last year to compel the EPA to issue rules. They argued that under the federal Clean Air Act, the EPA was required to control power plants’ toxic air emissions by December 2002.

"Instead the Bush administration asked Congress to eliminate that requirement," Earthjustice said. "Unable to win congressional support for that request, the Bush EPA tried to declare that the required pollution controls were simply not necessary or appropriate."

In February 2008, an appeals court unanimously rejected that move.

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