More than 20 years after Congress passed the Clean Air Act, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced on Wednesday new national standards that will limit the amount of mercury, cyanide, acid gas and other toxics emitted by America's coal- and oil-burning power plants.
Power plant operators have three years to install specific pollution control technologies needed to meet the new standards, known as the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS). About 40 percent of America's power plants will need to install new technology and some older plants are expected to simply shut down.
The EPA estimates that, by 2016, the new standards will prevent as many as 11,000 premature deaths and 4,700 heart attacks a year. The standards will also prevent 130,000 cases of childhood asthma and about 6,300 fewer cases of acute bronchitis in children each year.
Power plants are the biggest source of toxic air pollution in the country, accounting for more than 50 percent of mercury emissions and 75 percent of acid gas emissions, according to the EPA. Dozens of other dangerous pollutants also billow out of power plant stacks and disproportionately affect the health of people living in lower-income communities.
The EPA says the standards are long overdue. The agency first determined the need to cap mercury in 2000. The Bush administration finalized a rule to cut emissions but a federal appeals court struck down the rule because it failed to satisfy legal requirements. The court ordered the EPA to issue tougher rules by December 2011.
The announcement pleased environmentalists, and President Obama fully supports the new standards. The coal and electric industries, however, have spent years lobbying and filing legal challenges to weaken the proposed standards. Industry members are expected to file more legal challenges in the next year.
"After decades of industry-induced delay, the EPA did exactly what it was designed to do: look out for our health and our environment," said Frances Beinecke, president of the National Resources Defense Council. "Dirty coal-fired power plants will have to clean up the toxic soup of emissions that is polluting our air and making people sick, especially children."
Industry groups argue that the pollution rules will force some older plants to shut down, putting some workers at risk of losing their jobs. Some groups have even suggested that upgrading pollution controls could lead to energy shortages and increased costs to consumers.
In a statement, President Obama indicated that government analysis shows the new rules will not compromise the availability of electric power in any part of the country. Power companies have plenty of flexibility when it comes to implementing new pollution controls and can apply for a one-year extension on the deadline to meet the new standards.