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EPA Proposes New Mercury Air Pollution Rules

Standards Proposed by Environmental Protection Agency Will Cut Mercury Released by Power Plants
By
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

March 16, 2011 -- The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) today proposed the first national standards for mercury and other toxins emitted by power plants, which are some of the biggest air polluters in the nation.

A broad coalition of environmental groups, health agencies, and doctors hailed the new standards, which were issued under court order more than 20 years after they were mandated by congress.

“EPA is finally cleaning up the biggest source of toxic air pollution in America,” says John Walke, a senior attorney and director of the Clean Air for the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington, D.C.

The EPA estimates that the new standards will save up to 17,000 lives each year by reducing exposure to heavy metals like mercury, arsenic, chromium, and nickel; acid gases like sulfur dioxide; and particulate matter.

One major change will be amounts of mercury released into the atmosphere. Under the proposed rule, coal-fired power plants will have to reduce the amount of mercury that they release by about 91%.

Mercury From Power Plants

The nonpartisan, nonprofit group Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) released a list of the 25 biggest mercury-emitting power plants across the U.S in 2009.

Twenty are located within 50-100 miles of some of the nation’s biggest cities, including Dallas, Houston, Atlanta, Chicago, Minneapolis, Minn., Detroit, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, St. Louis, and Austin, Texas, according to the EDF.

Three of the five worst offenders are in Texas. The Martin Lake plant near Longview, Texas, and the Big Brown plant near Dallas are No. 1 and No. 2 on the list. Both are operated by Luminant Energy.

In a statement released in response to the report, the company said it had already installed activated carbon injection systems, the primary technology used to control mercury, on all of its coal-fired power plants. A company spokeswoman confirmed that both the Martin Lake plant and the Big Brown plant had gotten the new systems, but said she did not know when they were installed.

“The company remains committed to ongoing improvements in air quality, informed and balanced by an understanding of the impacts on electricity reliability, consumer prices and jobs, as well as the physical and timing constraints associated with installing new control equipment,” the statement reads.

Rounding out the top five mercury polluting power plants are Labadie Power Station in Missouri; James H. Miller Jr. Electric Generating Plant in Birmingham, Ala.; and the Limestone Electric Generating Station near Jewett, Texas.

“The pollutants spread all over the country, but they concentrate around these plants,” says Janice Nolen, assistant vice president for policy and advocacy for the American Lung Association. “These communities have been suffering for a long, long time.”

Mercury, a neurotoxin, can cause mental retardation, cerebral palsy, and deafness and blindness in fetuses and infants. In even low doses, mercury may cause developmental delays, affecting how long it takes kids to walk and talk. Mercury exposure has also been linked to poor attention spans and learning disabilities.

In adults, mercury exposure has been tied to infertility, memory loss, high blood pressure, and blindness; toxicity can cause numbness in the fingers and toes.

“I’m extremely hopeful that we’ll see big reductions as a result of this rule,” Nolen says.

“Through the commonsense goal of reducing harmful pollution in the air we breathe we’ll save lives, prevent illnesses, and promote vital economic opportunities in communities across the country,” says EPA administrator Lisa Jackson in public remarks she made before signing the new rule.

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