A publication of Appalachian Voices


A publication of Appalachian Voices


EPA Issues First-Ever National Mercury and Air Toxic Standards

In December 2011, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued the Mercury and Air Toxic Standards, the first-ever national standards to protect families from mercury and toxic air pollutants emitted by power plants.

Pollutants from coal-fired power plants include arsenic, acid gas, nickel, selenium and cyanide. The standards will cut these emissions with proven pollution controls used by more than half of the nation’s coal-fired plants.

Hailed as a victory by environmentalists and public health advocates, the EPA estimates that as many as 11,000 premature deaths and 4,700 heart attacks will be prevented and that the new standards will eliminate more than 130,000 cases of childhood asthma symptoms and 6,300 cases of acute bronchitis among children each year.

Mercury and other toxic pollutants have been shown to harm the nervous system, cause cancer, and impair thinking and early development. As mercury enters local waterways, it bio-accumulates at levels dangerous for human consumption.

Power plants are the largest remaining source of these toxic air pollutants. They are responsible for more than half of the mercury and 75 percent of the acid gas emissions in the United States. More than half of the power plants in the country use some sort of pollutions control, which the EPA used as a basis when creating the Mercury and Air Toxic Standards.

The standards are accompanied by a Presidential Memorandum that directs the EPA to use tools provided in the Clean Air Act to implement the Mercury and Air Toxic Standards in a cost-effective manner that ensures electrical reliability. The standards also ensure that benefits to public health will outweigh costs of implementation.

The EPA estimates that for every dollar spent on reducing pollution, the American public will see $9 in health benefits. Annually, the total health and economic benefits of these standards are estimated to be as much as $90 billion.

The Mercury and Air Toxic Standards and the final Cross-State Air Pollution Rule are the most significant steps in cleaning the air since the Acid Rain Program of the 1990s.

Constellations Ahead of New Rules

At least one energy company in the country was looking forward to the new emissions and cross-state air pollution rules.

Baltimore, Md.,-based Constellation Energy spent $885 million in 2009 to install emissions controls for sulfur and nitrogen, anticipating new rules by the EPA. The company has already drastically reduced emissions at their Brandon Shores plant.

The Cross-State Air Pollution rule was originally to take effect on Jan. 1, but a federal court issued a temporary stay of regulations to evaluate how much time coal companies would need to implement the retrofits.

Constellation argued that other plants should have to implement these emission limits or shut down completely.