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EPA adopts new mercury rule

By Fritz Mayer
January 11, 2012

WASHINGTON, D.C. — After persistent resistance from the coal industry for the past 20 years, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on December 22, issued new standards limiting the emission of mercury and other toxic substances from coal-burning power plants.

Officially called the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, the bill will be in effect across the entire country, and the environmental group PennFuture promptly issued a press release calling the move a “wonderful holiday present for Pennsylvania families since we are the second largest mercury polluter in the nation.”

The EPA said the new standards “will prevent as many as 11,000 premature deaths and 4,700 heart attacks a year.” Additionally, it has been reported for at least a decade that children who eat fish contaminated with mercury suffer from IQ loss.

According to an article on, a 2005 study estimated that such IQ loss ultimately resulted in lost wages amounting to $8.7 billion per year.

On the other side of the equation, critics and some in the coal industry warn that the cost to adhere to the standards, which EPA estimates at $10 billion, will actually be 10 times that much, and will lead to the retirement of numerous power plants, which in turn will lead to rolling blackouts when the rules take effect in 2015.

A survey conducted by the Associated Press, however, indicates that up to 68 coal-fired plants in the country will be mothballed in the years ahead, but those are mostly very old plants and some of them would have been slated for shutdown regardless of the new standards.

Some power companies, such has PPL, have indicated they are able to live with the new rules.

As for the broader impact on the economy, the EPA release said that the pollution controls needed to meet the new standards are “not only manufactured by companies in the United States, but also support short-term and long-term jobs,” up to 46,000 short term and 8,000 long-term. The report said that more than half of existing coal-fired plants already are equipped with the pollution controls.

Mercury from coal-fired power plants is one of the main reasons there are recommended limits on the human consumption of sport fish, such as smallmouth bass from the Upper Delaware River and walleye from Lake Wallenpaupack. In time, the new standards will reduce the need for such recommendations.