WASHINGTON — Unveiling a historic rule, the Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday announced the first national requirement for the nation's coal-fired power plants to reduce emissions of mercury, arsenic, cyanide and other toxic pollutants.
The landmark ruling took more than 20 years for EPA to finish. Under the Clean Air Act, many other sources of air pollution have been cleaned up, but power plants were so important to the economy that they long had a pass.
About 60 percent of the nation's plants, however, already comply with the new requirement because of state rules. The remaining 40 percent are a major source of pollution, producing more than half the mercury emissions in the country, the EPA said. The ruling will require coal-fired power plants to add pollution control equipment or close. Many plants already scheduled to close are 50 years or older.
EPA estimated that the new requirement will prevent as many as 11,000 deaths, 4,700 heart attacks and 130,000 cases of childhood asthma each year.
"This is a great victory for public health, especially for the health of our children," EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said in an announcement ceremony at Children's National Medical Center.
Mercury harms the nervous systems of fetuses and young children, reducing their ability to think and learn as they grow up. Other toxic pollutants from the plants have been linked to cancer and other diseases. Soot, or particle pollution, can cause heart and lung diseases.
"The dirty, soot-spewing coal plant will soon become a relic of the past — a dirty industrial dinosaur," said Frank O'Donnell, president of the watchdog group Clean Air Watch. "Today's action ensures that the cleanup of coal-fired power plants will be the signature clean-air achievement of the Obama administration."
EPA estimates that it will cost companies $9.6 billion to comply. It said the health benefits would outweigh that by as much as 9 to 1. It also predicted a net gain in jobs — up to 46,000 short-term construction jobs and 8,000 long-term jobs in maintenance and operation of pollution controls.
Lawmakers from coal producing and manufacturing states such as Kentucky, Michigan and West Virginia have been fighting the EPA all year and have proposed legislation to weaken it.
"Not only has President Obama's regulatory agenda made it harder for new electricity generation to be built, but these new regulations will increase energy prices for Americans who can least afford to pay more to light and heat their homes, and for businesses that need reliable, affordable energy to compete globally," said Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., chairman of the House Energy and Power subcommittee.
Jeff Holmstead, former EPA air administrator under George W. Bush and who now represents energy companies at Bracewell Giuliani, a law firm, also predicted there would be problems with brownouts if the rule survives likely court or legislative challenges.
However, EPA and Department of Energy have issued reports concluding that the ruling won't compromise electricity generation.
The White House released a statement saying that companies would have three years to reduce their mercury and other toxic substance emissions and could appeal for an additional year. Beyond that, in cases where a key plant was needed for the reliability of the grid but couldn't upgrade in time, the law allowed a fifth year.
Jackson said she expects that fifth year will be needed rarely, if at all. "But the president wanted people to know there are options in the Clean Air Act for the lights to stay on."
Some industry officials said seven to eight years would be more realistic.
The Tennessee Valley Authority, which generates electricity for much of the Southeast, "will comply with any new rules put in place by EPA. However, based on decades of experience in installing pollution controls, constructing new generation, and upgrading its transmission system, TVA knows that more time will be needed to comply with EPA's emerging regulations," said Scott Brooks, a spokesman for TVA.
The National Mining Association called the ruling "costly and economically damaging." The Kentucky Coal Association, in a state where more than 90 percent of the electricity is generated from coal, predicted higher costs to consumers.
Others praised the rule.
"This is going to be have very important public health benefits for years to come," said Michael A. Livermore, the executive director of the Institute for Policy Integrity, a think tank affiliated with New York University School of Law. And from an economic perspective the rule was a "slam dunk," he said. "The benefits swamped the costs."
The Rev. Mitch Hescox, president of the Evangelical Environmental Network, speaking at the hospital with EPA's Jackson, said: "I'm standing here because we agree on the need to protect children from mercury. Christians are called to protect life. It's sacred."
Bishop Stephen E. Blaire, in a statement for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, also stressed the vulnerability of children and fetuses to toxic pollutants. "In the end it just makes good sense to want to have clean air for our children and families to breathe and for future generations," he said.
Environmental groups called the ruling historic and applauded the Obama administration.
"We can breathe easier today. After decades of industry-induced delay, the Environmental Protection Agency did exactly what it was designed to do: look out for our health and our environment," said Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council.
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