Currently, there are no limits on how much mercury or other toxic pollutants can be released from a power plant's smoke stacks which emit some 386,000 tons of toxic air pollution annually, by far the largest industrial source of such pollution in the United States. The new rules would require power plants to install technologies that would limit the emissions.
The EPA said the regulations would reduce mercury emissions from these power plants by 91 percent. The rules would also further limit other pollutants, including particulate matter, such as dust, dirt and other fragments associated with a variety of respiratory ailments.
This standard "will save lives, prevent illnesses and promote vital economic opportunities across the country," said EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, who invited second-graders to attend the event in Washington, D.C., where she signed the proposal.
Reaching into her own history, Jackson described how her son an asthmatic spent his first Christmas in the hospital "literally fighting to breathe."
"With the help of existing technologies, we will be able to take reasonable steps that will provide dramatic protections to our children and loved ones, preventing premature deaths, heart attacks and asthma attacks."
The court order gave the EPA until November to make the rules official. Jackson said companies would then have three years to comply, and some could be given an extra year.
Such rules would have the greatest impact on Texas, which is home to more coal-fired power plants than any other state. Texas has at least 19 coal-fired plants and 10 more in various stages of permitting and construction. The Environmental Defense Fund says seven of the top 25 mercury-emitting power plants are in the Lone Star State, four of those are in the top 10.
The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which regulates air emissions from the state's coal-fired power plants, said it already regulates mercury from new plants, in a case-by-case strategy that requires pollution control technologies based on the type of coal being used by the facility. Some coals burn cleaner than others. These regulations do not apply to existing facilities.
Jeff Holmstead, who served as the EPA's top air official from 2000 to 2005 and now heads the Environmental Strategy Group at the Bracewell & Giuliani law firm in Washington, D.C., said the new rules are inefficient, costly and provide few benefits to the environment or public health.
"It seems to be just another way to attack coal and coal-fired power," Holmstead said.
The EPA said it would cost nearly $11 billion a year for industry to comply with the new rule, prompting Holmstead to define it as "by far the most expensive rule that EPA has ever done."
The agency, joined by medical groups including the American Lung Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics, estimated that the value of health benefits associated with reduced exposure to fine particles could be from $59 billion to $140 billion by 2016. The EPA estimates it could save 17,000 lives a year and generate 31,000 short-term construction jobs and 9,000 long-term utility jobs.
"Dirty air makes children sick, that's the long and short of it," said Marion Burton, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics. "If you think it's expensive to install a scrubber, you should see how much it costs to treat a child born with a birth defect that was preventable."
Studies show exposure to mercury increases the risk of birth defects as well as developmental problems in small children.
Jackson said the EPA's models found installing the technologies could increase energy rates by about $3 to $4 a month, though it could be less depending on fuel costs. For example, she said, a New Jersey provider that already installed pollution-cutting technologies recently reduced its rates.
A report by the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, a coalition of power companies, argued the toxic air regulation is only one of several rules slated to go into effect in or around 2015 rules that could cost industry about $100 billion. The council says studies have found that for every $1 billion spent on upgrades and compliance, 16,000 jobs will be put at risk.