WASHINGTON — The Environmental Protection Agency finalized rules late Thursday to curb pollution from industrial boilers and cement plants, agreeing to give industry additional time for compliance and easing some emissions limits from earlier proposals.
The new rules, which have been enmeshed in a fierce regulatory and legal fight for more than a decade, drew criticism from environmentalists. Earthjustice staff attorney James Pew, who fought earlier versions in federal court, called the set of rules ‘‘an avalanche of bad news.’’
For the first time, large boilers and cement kilns will face strict limits on mercury, acid gases, and fine particulate matter, or soot. But the EPA will give boiler owners three years to meet the standards, with a possible extension for another year after that, meaning the earliest they will take effect would be in 2016. Cement plants will not have to comply with the new limits until September 2015, two years after they were originally set to take place.
‘‘We were looking to realize the significant health benefits from regulating these uncontrolled sources but maintain some flexibility for implementing them,’’ a senior EPA official said. ‘‘We want to make sure these rules get implemented.’’
There are fewer than 115 cement plants in the United States, but they account for seven percent of the mercury emitted into the air from stationary sources. Mercury contamination gets into the food chain when it enters waterways and soils in the form of precipitation and can cause neurological damage in infants and young children.
Although the most restrictive limits will affect just 1 percent of the nation’s nearly 1.5 million boilers, the industry had fought restrictions because these facilities are integral to the operations of hospitals, paper plants, and factories. Boiler operators had sought to delay the rules by five years, until 2018.
The measures will deliver significant health benefits and impose major costs on the US manufacturing sector. Meeting the standards for boilers and some incinerators will cost industry between $1.3 billion and $1.5 billion annually, the EPA estimates, and is expected to avoid up to 8,100 premature deaths, prevent 5,100 heart attacks, and avert 52,000 asthma attacks each year once fully implemented. The annual cost of the cement rules will run a few hundred million dollars, according to the agency, while delivering billions annually in health benefits.
Donna Harman, chief executive of the American Forest and Paper Association, said in an interview that the Obama administration has come to recognize that her industry and others faced the daunting prospect of competing against other sectors to install pollution controls on a tight deadline.
‘‘This is one of the most costly and complicated rules, and there’s going to be a lot of competition for these resources [to upgrade boilers and incinerators] all at the same time,’’ Harman said. ‘‘You can put a stricter and arbitrary deadline, but if it can’t be done, it can’t be done.’’
Pew, the environmental lawyer, said that his group would challenge the new regulations in court, but added that ‘‘even if we win in court, it will be years until EPA gets around to doing this right.’’