Clean Air: The EPA Finally Tackles Mercury Pollution

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Susan Montoya Bryan / AP

The coal-powered San Juan Generating Station near Farmington, New Mexico. New EPA rules on mercury emissions will fall hardest on coal plants.

At the start of the fall, greens were not happy with President Obama. There was lingering disappointment about the failure of climate legislation a year before—a failure that many environmentalists blamed on insufficient action from the White House. That was bad enough, but at the beginning of September Obama shocked many of his environmental allies by pulling back proposed tough standards on smog pollution, undercutting his own Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). And there was more anger—including sustained protests outside the White House—over the possible approval of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would bring Canadian oil sands to the U.S. Influential environmentalists were talking seriously about withholding full support for Obama in 2012, despite the fact that a Republican President would almost certainly be disastrous for environmental protection. It didn’t matter—greens were that mad.

Fast forward a few months, however, and things have changed. Obama decided last month to put off any decisions on the Keystone XL pipeline until 2013, ostensibly to allow more time for study. He threatened to veto any Congressional bill that would force his hand on the pipeline. And then on December 21, the White House announced the first-ever regulations on mercury pollution from power plants, a controversial set of rules—fiercely opposed by Republicans and much of the utility industry—that had been in the works for more than two decades. The regulations are a win for environmentalists and for public health, but the announcement also helps cement Obama’s relationship to his green base heading into an election year.

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Here’s what EPA head Lisa Jackson said at the unveiling of the regulations, held at the Children’s National Medical Center in Washington:

I am glad to be here to mark the finalization of a clean air rule that has been 20 years in the making, and is now ready to start improving our health, protecting our children, and cleaning up our air. Under the Clean Air Act these standards will require American power plants to put in place proven and widely available pollution control technologies to cut harmful emissions of mercury, arsenic, chromium, nickel and acid gases. In and of itself, this is a great victory for public health, especially for the health of our children.

You can find the full rules here—much of what I wrote about the pending mercury regulations in a blog post last Friday is still relevant:

Mercury is a neurotoxin—one that’s especially dangerous to children—and trace amounts of it can be found in some forms of coal, especially from the West. When that coal is burned, the mercury is released into the air, where it can attack us directly, or wind its way up the food chain, often through fish. (Concerns about mercury levels is one reason that pregnant women are often advised to avoid sushi and other seafood.) The EPA has been looking at regulating mercury since the Clean Air Amendments of 1990 were passed—with remarkably bipartisan support—but the agency dragged its feet, issuing its first study in 1998 and the first attempt at regulations under former President George W. Bush in 2005. But those rules were considered so lax that a federal court threw them out and ordered the agency to come up with something more stringent. Now—seven years later—the EPA is on the brink of doing just that.

The new rules will cut mercury, as well as several other air toxins—including arsenic—chiefly from coal-fired power plants. The public health benefits are impressive: the agency said the rules will prevent some 11,000 premature deaths a year and 130,000 childhood asthma symptoms. The costs may sound high—the EPA estimates the price of complying with the regulations will run to $11 billion a year—but the rules should reduce health costs by preventing asthma, hospital visits and premature deaths at a much higher return, as Eileen Claussen of the NGO C2ES said:

These investments will pay important dividends by reducing health costs by $37-90 billion in 2016 alone.  EPA has taken steps to allow time to install new controls and to ensure energy reliability, but implementation will have to be carefully monitored to ensure that any bottlenecks are addressed in a timely manner.

Many—but not all—utilities are complaining about the cost of the regulation. Scott Segal, who represents utilities, said:

The bottom line…this rule is the most expensive air rule that E.P.A. has ever proposed in terms of direct costs. It is certainly the most extensive intervention into the power market and job market that E.P.A. has ever attempted to implement.

But many utilities say they’ve already prepared for the regulations, which—let’s not forget—have been on the way for years. And the EPA is giving power plants a little extra time to prepare for the rules, which won’t fully kick in for another four years, or 24 years after the 1990 Clean Air Act was passed. Waivers will be available for individual plants to ensure that electricity is flowing, even as the rules prevent 90% of the mercury in coal burned in power plants from being emitted into the air.

The mercury regulations were an early Christmas present for environmentalists, who’ve waited years for this day, and for the EPA’s Jackson, a public health advocate whose son has asthma. They’re also a reminder that greater change can often come about through the nitty-gritty work of executive rulemaking than through big bills in Congress. (This is especially true when Congress seems bound and determined not to do anything at all.) Young greens who threatened to sit out 2012 if Obama failed to stop Keystone XL should take note: this is how having an environmentally-friendly President in the White House really pays off.


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Bryan Walsh is a senior writer at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bryanrwalsh. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME