In 2011, the Environmental Protection Agency issued the first ever national standards to reduce mercury and other toxic air pollution from coal and oil-fired power plants. Since the implementation of the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments, the EPA has been tasked with issuing regulations to regulate damaging pollutants released into the air. In 1990, there were three major industries that emitted two-thirds of mercury and other toxic emissions: medical waste incinerators, municipal waste combustors, and power plants.
Mercury is extremely toxic and linked to neurological and developmental problems, and even death. When it is emitted into the air, it gets trapped into precipitation and returns into the water supply. Once it ends up in lakes and streams, it turns into a more toxic organic form that permeates the food chain by being absorbed in the tissue and muscles of fish — and all that eat them. Pregnant women and children are most susceptible to the dangers of mercury, which can lead to nervous system damage, respiratory illnesses and birth defects.
Having been subject to regulations for a number of years, medical waste incinerators and municipal waste combustors had reduced their mercury emissions by 98 percent and 96 percent respectively by 2005. At the time of the new regulations in 2011, power plants were the source of 50 percent of air-borne mercury emissions, 75 percent of acid gases and nearly 60 percent of toxic metals. Many of these plants are located near major water supplies.
A coalition of state and industry representatives sued the EPA, claiming that they did not have the authority to issue the regulations and that they failed to consider the costs of implementing the new standards. The economies of the states that fought the rules were heavily dependent on the coal and energy industry. The coalition said being forced to comply with the regulations would disrupt the power supply as many of the older plants would have to shut down and there would be a risk of losing more than a half-million jobs.
On Tuesday, an appeals court upheld the regulations.
The court rejected the industry’s argument that the EPA didn’t have authority, saying that Congress had relegated the authority to the EPA to determine which types of things would be deemed a hazard to public health and act accordingly. Furthermore, they were convinced that the EPA had acted appropriately based on the ample evidence of the health risks of mercury. As for the costs, the court said the EPA had acted properly by making the decision based on health risks and not compliance costs and that the agency had shown that the benefits outweighed the costs.
The standards will prevent about “90 percent of the mercury in coal burned in power plants being emitted to the air; reduce 88 percent of acid gas emissions from power plants; and reduce 41 percent of sulfur dioxide emissions from power plants.” The nation’s more than 600 coal and oil-fire power plants will have until April 2015 to comply, and the law allows for states to grant an additional year for technology installation. Thus far the coal industry has invested $130 billion, and anticipates spending an additional $100 billion over the next decade on “clean coal technology.” An industry coalition has said that many power plants have already been retired due to the costs and expects additional ones to go offline by the deadline, which they say risks disruption to the energy supply of the nation.
The EPA called the ruling a “a victory for public health and the environment” and notes that in EPA’s 40 year history, the Clean Air Act has not impacted power companies’ ability to keep the lights on in communities across the United States.
And they can do so without polluting the air and water.