EPA tells nation’s dirty power plants to clean up

The Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday unveiled first-ever national standards requiring power plants to reduce emissions of mercury and other toxic pollutants.

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson called the new rule a “great victory for public health,” with benefits that far exceed the costs.

The rule’s finalization represents a major victory for environmental and health groups, and it comes just months after President Obama upset them by shelving tougher ozone standards until 2013. Its supporters said the new regulation ends 21 years of waiting for controls over toxic power plant emissions. Congress tasked the EPA with limiting toxic air pollution in 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments.

“There has been an enormous health toll to the failure to clean up that mess, and today is a long-overdue and just day of reckoning to finally require that cleanup to happen,” John Walke, clean-air director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group, said in an interview.

In a video posted to YouTube, Obama said the long wait for the standards was “wrong.”

“Today my administration is saying, ‘Enough,’” Obama said.

The rule replaces one from the George W. Bush-era that a court threw out because it unlawfully regulated mercury pollution from power plants through an emissions-trading program. It has a three-year compliance deadline and a possible one-year extension. Jackson said the EPA is suggesting “very liberal use” of that fourth year for companies that are installing controls.

The standards have come under fire from Republicans in Congress and some power companies that lobbied to have them weakened.

Republicans contended the EPA may have overstated the health benefits and didn’t assess the economic effects adequately. The rule will shutter power plants, costing jobs and raising electricity prices while threatening electric reliability, they charged.

“We all want clean air for our children and communities, but the EPA has not demonstrated that any potential marginal improvements will outweigh the very real threat to our electric reliability,” Rep. Pete Olson, R-Texas, said in a statement.

Republicans have sought to delay implementation and weaken the rule. Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee’s top Republican, said he would sponsor a resolution that blocks the rule if simple majorities of the House and Senate vote for it and the president signs it.

Insisting they weren’t trying to delay implementation, some electricity-industry executives told federal regulators recently they wanted more compliance time.

“The time to comply is really the issue at heart,” said Anthony Topazi, chief operating officer for Atlanta-based Southern Co., the fourth-largest U.S. power generator.

But some electric utilities say the standards are achievable. The rule was so long in the making that power companies had plenty of time to prepare, some utility executives have said.

NRG Energy Inc., a power-generating company based in New Jersey, plans to spend $720 million over five years on upgraded plants and new equipment nationwide to better control emissions, including mercury, nitrogen-oxide and other pollutants.

“Having the final EPA rule on mercury gives us the clarity we need to be able to select and install the required controls to reduce mercury as well,” said David Knox, an NRG spokesman. “We have already planned for these expenditures and will have the controls in place in time to comply with this rule.”

Rejecting allegations that the EPA was overstating the health benefits, Jackson said the rule will prevent 11,000 premature deaths a year and reduce heart attacks, strokes and asthma attacks. Its projected benefits will add up to nine times the rule’s $10 billion annual pricetag, Jackson said.

Jackson added the standards are achievable with technologies that more than half the nation’s coal plants already have.

And if reliability concerns arise, Jackson said, the rule has a flexibility mechanism to grant an additional one-year extension.

EPA officials have said repeatedly 40 years of air rules have never caused the lights to go out and the agency has long used Clean Air Act flexibility mechanisms to prevent reliability problems.

EPA air regulations have come under fire from Texas lawmakers who contend they raise the risk of blackouts in a state that nearly had them last summer during a prolonged drought.

Their concerns have been elevated since the Electric Reliability Council of Texas recently projected power reserves would decline below the state power-grid operator’s desired target next summer and into the coming decade. Texas environmentalists have rejected the attacks on the EPA rules as scare tactics.

A number of coal-fired power plants are located in Texas, which leads the nation in power-sector mercury emissions, environmentalists say.

“Today President Obama stood up to the polluters and protected kids’ health,” Tessa McClellan, field associate with Environment Texas, said in a statement.

Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said the rule doesn’t destroy jobs but ensures healthy citizens and creates thousands of construction and power-plant jobs needed for companies to come into compliance.

“EPA’s action today will generate jobs and protect the health and safety of families across the country,” Boxer said in a statement.

Jackson said the health benefits of the final air-toxics rule are somewhat lower than in the proposed version because the agency determined a separate upcoming rule, the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule, will cut more soot-forming emissions than originally thought, leaving less to be handled by the air-toxics rule.

She also said the costs are about $1 billion less than in the original version because the EPA included “a couple of flexibilities” for complying.

Staff reporter Simone Sebastian contributed to this story.