WASHINGTON - The Environmental Protection Agency is telling hundreds of the nation’s oldest and dirtiest power plants to clean up or shut down.
The EPA announced new regulations yesterday that will force all power plants to control mercury and other toxic pollutants for the first time. Health advocates said the move was long overdue.
The new standards will rein in the largest remaining source of uncontrolled toxic pollution in the United States - the emissions from the nation’s coal- and oil-fired power plants, which have been allowed to run for decades without addressing their full environmental and public health costs.
About half of the 1,200 coal- and oil-fired units nationwide still lack modern pollution controls, despite the EPA getting the authority from Congress in 1990 to control toxic air pollution from power plant smokestacks. In 2000, the agency concluded it was necessary to clamp down on the emissions to protect public health.
At a press conference yesterday at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said the new regulations represent the Obama administration’s “biggest clean air action yet,’’ trumping a landmark agreement to double fuel economy standards for vehicles and another rule that will reduce emissions from power plants that foul the air in states downwind.
The administration was under court order to issue a new rule, after a court threw out an attempt by the Bush administration to exempt power plants from toxic air pollution controls.
“Before this rule, there were no national standards limiting the amount of mercury, arsenic, chromium, nickel, and acid gases that power plants across the country could release into the air that we breathe,’’ said Jackson, listing the contaminants linked to cancer, IQ loss, heart disease, and lung disease that are covered by the rule, and that also pollute lakes, streams, and fish.
In a video released yesterday, President Obama said the decades of delays caused by special interest groups that resulted in standards never being put into place for power “was wrong.’’ “Today, my administration is saying, ‘Enough,’ ’’ he said.
Power plant operators will have to choose between installing pollution control equipment, switching to cleaner-burning natural gas, or shutting down. None of those choices come cheap - the EPA estimates the rule will cost $9.6 billion annually, making it one of the most expensive the agency has ever issued.
Some power producers intensely lobbied the Obama administration to weaken the rule and to delay it, and Republicans in Congress passed legislation to do so, saying it would threaten jobs and the reliability of the power grid, and raise electricity prices.
To ease those concerns, the administration will encourage states to make “broadly available’’ an additional fourth year to comply with the rule, as allowed by the law. Case-by-case extensions could also be granted to address local reliability issues, according to a presidential memorandum sent to Jackson.
In the memorandum, Obama directs the EPA to ensure that implementation of the rule “proceed in a cost-effective manner that ensures electric reliability.’’
Environmentalists said yesterday that the added flexibility did not jeopardize the public health benefits of the regulation.
“After more than two decades of delay, dirty coal-fired power plants are going to be cleaned up in short order,’’ said Frank O’Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch, who said the EPA “bent over backwards’’ to accommodate concerns about reliability.
For those in the industry, and some in Congress, the concessions didn’t go far enough.
Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, the top Republican on the Senate’s environment committee, said he would file a joint resolution, a rarely used Congressional tactic, to get the rule overturned.
Some in the industry pushed for an automatic delay, or “safety valve,’’ to make sure that plants that have to run to ensure reliability aren’t found in violation of the rule and too many plants don’t close down at once. In addition to those that will retire, hundreds of units will have to be idled temporarily to install pollution control equipment.
Some of those units are at critical junctions on the grid and are essential to restarting the electrical network in case of a blackout, or making sure voltage doesn’t drain completely from electrical lines, like a hose that’s lost pressure. The Edison Electric Institute, whose members were split on the effects of the rule, said in a statement that while the EPA “made useful technical changes,’’ it believes “the administration is underestimating the complexity of implementing this rule in such a short period of time.’’