New Rules Proposed for Power Plant Toxics

By Weinhold, Bob | Environmental Health Perspectives, June 2011 | Go to article overview

New Rules Proposed for Power Plant Toxics


Weinhold, Bob, Environmental Health Perspectives


Coal-and oil-fired power plants are key cogs in U.S. economic development. They're also major emitters of many toxic substances, including mercury, arsenic, chromium, and dioxins. In an effort to dramatically cut the latter while modestly impacting the former, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is proposing regulations that would set the first national standards for emissions of toxic substances from about 525 power plants. (1,2) The agency estimates that by 2016 the proposed standards, which would regulate 67 toxics, could produce health benefits worth $5--13 (for avoided premature deaths, nonfatal heart attacks, respiratory problems, lost work days, and other health outcomes) for every $1 spent to meet the requirements. (1) But Melissa McHenry, spokeswoman for American Electric Power, whose 25 coal-fired power plants serve 5.3 million customers in 11 U.S. states, says the agency is significantly underestimating costs to industry.

The new regulations, which are scheduled by consent decree to be finalized by 16 November 2011, would replace a George W. Bush administration regulation that addressed only mercury. (3) In February 2008 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia vacated that regulation, deeming it inadequate under the requirements of the Clean Air Act. (4)

Among the toxics covered in the proposed rule for existing plants are mercury, lead, arsenic, chromium, cadmium, nickel, antimony, beryllium, manganese, hydrogen chloride (HC1), hydrogen fluoride (HF), dioxins, and furans. Additional sulfur dioxide ([S0.sub.2]), nitrogen oxides (NO ), and particulate matter (PM) standards would be implemented for new plants. The agency says existing plants, which are located in nearly every state and provide 46% of U.S. electricity generation, are responsible for 83% of all airborne selenium emissions, 62% of arsenic, 60% of SO,, 50% of mercury, over 50% of many acid gases (including HC1 and HF), 28% of nickel, and 22% of chromium. (1), (5)

The agency says existing technology (6) could be used to meet all the proposed standards and that the installed equipment would concurrently reduce [SO.sub.2], [NO.sub.x], and PM even in existing plants for which such controls would not be mandated. As part of the new rules, the agency is also proposing mandatory work practices that would lead to optimal combustion and subsequent reductions in toxics such as dioxins and furans.

When installed, the EPA estimates the new equipment and operating practices would keep 91% of the mercury in coal from being released into the air and reduce 91% of acid gases and 55% of SO, from power plants each year. The agency also predicts that implementing the controls will not only prevent 850,000 days of missed work each year but also provide 31,000 short-term construction jobs and 9,000 long-term utility jobs. (7)

Regarding the toxics parameters, McHenry says, "We don't have a problem with the proposed limits." But she is concerned about the time allotted by the EPA to implement necessary controls. Power plant owners and operators would have three years to comply after the regulations are finalized, with the possibility of an additional year in certain circumstances. That's too tight, she says, especially if about 20% of all plants have to shut down rather than add emission controls, which is what she says the industry is estimating.

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