Bye, Bye Mercury: Historic EPA Rules (Finally) Kill Neurotoxin

Twenty plus years in the making, new clean air standards will prevent an estimated 11,000 annual deaths and 4,700 heart attacks.
Come 2016, the smoke coming out of America's utility industry smokestacks will be mercury-free. (Photo: Reuters Staff/Reuters)
Dec 22, 2011· 1 MIN READ
Salvatore Cardoni holds a political science degree from the George Washington University. He's written about all things environment since 2007.

After two decades on the lam from environmental regulators, the coal-burning power industry must finally clean up its act.

In an historic ruling, the Environmental Protection Agency announced this week new federal clean-air regulations that will dramatically reduce emissions of mercury and other toxic pollutants from the nation's antiquated and dirty power plants.

In the works for more than two decades, the new rules, dubbed the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS), will result in at least $59 billion in annual financial savings from healthcare-related costs, estimates the EPA.

"The Mercury and Air Toxics Standards will protect millions of families and children from harmful and costly air pollution and provide the American people with health benefits that far outweigh the costs of compliance," said EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson.

Compliance with the new rules is expected to cost the utility industry roughly $10 billion per year as they retrofit their facilities with emissions-control equipment between now and 2016.

The standards will be the first countrywide limits on the amount of mercury and other toxics—such as arsenic, nickel, and cyanide—emitted from power-plant smokestacks.

The EPA estimates that 11,000 annual premature deaths and 130,000 childhood asthma symptoms will be prevented by the new rules.

"This is truly historic," says Frank O'Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch, in an e-mail interview to the Associated Press. "The health benefits will be tremendous. There is no question in my mind that this will prove to be the signature clean-air accomplishment of the Obama administration."

The new rules apply to about 1,200 coal-fired units at 450 facilities that generate about 48 percent of electricity nationwide, the EPA says. Because new emissions controls are costly, utilities that own older coal-fired power plants may face some financial pressure. To offset these pressures, the EPA gave utilities until 2016 to upgrade—with an added year if a company can show it deserves more time.

Congressional Republicans vigorously oppose the new standard, arguing that they will unduly burden an already weakened utility industry. One study found that 183,000 annual jobs would be lost between 2012 and 2020 because of the new rules. Other studies, however, including the EPA's own peer-reviewed analyses, have contradicted these findings.

Analysis by the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington think tank that studies policy effects on low- and middle-income workers, suggests the new mercury rule "would have a modest positive net impact on overall employment, likely leading to the creation of 28,000 to 158,000 jobs between now and 2015."