WASHINGTON — After years of delays and false starts under both Democratic and Republican administrations, the Environmental Protection Agency is close to finishing two measures to reduce pollution from coal-fired power plants.
Health experts say the pollution reductions will save thousands of lives every year by sparing people asthma attacks, heart attacks and other health problems. Coal-dependent power companies that face big bills for new equipment in response to the EPA rules are calling for more time, arguing that electric rates will rise, harming households and industries.
One of the rules, expected in final form as early as Wednesday, would force states in the eastern half of the country to reduce pollutants that travel hundreds of miles to create dangerously bad air days in other states. The other rule, due in November and the subject of much wrangling, will be the first national requirement to reduce mercury, lead, arsenic and other toxic pollutants from coal-fired power plants.
"Pollutants such as mercury, arsenic and particulate matter shorten or reduce the quality of Americans' lives and put at risk the health and development of future generations," EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said in recent testimony on Capitol Hill.
Jackson said the health benefits would far outweigh the power industry's costs.
While other industries have been required to make the same cleanups under federal law over the past 21 years, the power sector has gotten special consideration because of its importance to the economy. Coal-fired power plants today are the largest source of mercury, arsenic and other hazardous substances in air pollution.
The EPA's proposed rule aimed at reducing pollution between states is a court-ordered revision of a Bush administration rule from 2005. The EPA proposed a new version last August. Companies would be required to comply in 2012.
Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., the chair of the Energy and Power Subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, has argued that this rule is "another example of EPA acting aggressively and too quickly," said his spokesman, Robert Sumner. "Many of EPA's proposed rules will have real consequences for jobs and our economy."
The EPA's plan to cut toxic pollution, including mercury, is getting most of the attention. Not all power companies oppose it. Some, particularly those that use cleaner fuels such as natural gas, have publicly supported it. In addition, some with coal-burning plants already have invested in the pollution controls, often prompted by state laws.
The EPA says that about 44 percent of the nation's more than 440 coal-fired power plants haven't installed the pollution-control equipment they'll need.
There are 84 hazardous air pollutants from power plants, including acid gases, dioxins, lead and other metals, and mercury. Many are carcinogens. Many also are linked to childhood developmental problems. The best-known is mercury.
Mercury settles in water and accumulates in fish. Ingesting it can cause developmental birth defects and damage a child's memory and ability to learn. Mercury also damages the kidneys and liver.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops wrote to Jackson urging her to stand firm on the toxics rule. The National Association of Evangelicals also urged its members to write to Washington in support of it.
"We've had two decades of bipartisan foot-dragging, with the courts finally ordering the federal government to enforce the law and protect the unborn," the Evangelical Environmental Network said on its website.
The EPA said in 2000, at the end of the Clinton administration, that it was necessary to regulate toxic air emissions under revisions of the federal clean air law made a decade earlier.
The Bush administration offered a mercury rule in 2005. Environmentalists sued, saying it was too weak. The courts threw it out and required the agency to fix it. The agency's legal deadline for a final rule is Nov. 16, and Jackson recently said that date was firm.
The rule would give power plants that don't have the equipment three years to install it, or a fourth if states think more time is needed.
"This is not a surprise. This is something we've all known about for 10 years," said Thaddeus Miller, an executive vice president of Calpine, a power company that makes electricity mainly from natural gas.
Scott Segal, the director of the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, a group of power companies that opposes the rules, said the benefits from reducing mercury were "tiny in comparison to costs" and that there'd be few benefits from reducing acid gases, lead, arsenic and other toxics.
A study for the American Lung Association earlier this year reported that toxics other than mercury, such as arsenic and lead, have greatest impact near a plant. The report cited damage to human health and the environment from different types of hazardous pollutants. Acid gases, for example, irritate the skin, eyes and breathing passages, it said, and dioxins are probable carcinogens that also cause reproductive problems, among other things.
The report also found that controls on these pollutants would have the co-benefit of reducing particulate matter and sulfur dioxide, which cause respiratory illnesses. "As a result, controlling hazardous air pollutant emissions is expected to generate substantial public health and environmental benefits," it said.
On Capitol Hill, public testimony has focused on the impact on jobs and electricity bills.
EPA Deputy Administrator Bob Perciasepe said the toxics rule wouldn't affect the reliability of the electricity supply and that price increases would be within the normal range of variability. He said the agency estimated that it would create 31,000 short-term construction jobs and 9,000 long-term power-plant jobs.
DTE Energy in Michigan has said that rates could go up as much as 20 percent as a result of the toxics rule. Spokesman John Austerberry said the compliance deadlines on both new rules wouldn't give the company enough time to retrofit all its plants.
Six to eight more years would allow time to develop emissions-control equipment that isn't commercially ready yet, he said.
American Electric Power, which supplies electricity in the Midwest, Southeast, Texas and Oklahoma, also called this month for more time. The company, one of the largest electricity producers, has been floating proposed legislation to delay the rules.
The company would have to "prematurely shut down" about 25 percent of its generating capacity, cut "hundreds of good power plant jobs" and invest $6 billion to $8 billion to comply with the rules, it said in a June news release.
However, the company already had said it planned to retire the plants, which were built from 1944 to 1960 and are less efficient than newer ones. Michael Morris, the chairman and CEO of American Electric Power, recently told investors that closing them was the right thing to do for business reasons.
The company in 2007 reached a settlement in a 1999 lawsuit alleging Clean Air Act violations. It was the largest environmental enforcement settlement, the EPA said at the time. The company agreed to reduce air pollutants at a cost of more than $4.6 billion. The order called for it to retire plants, switch to cleaner technology or add pollution controls.
Morris also told investors that what becomes of the two rules in the long run will depend on whether Republicans regain the presidency and the Senate. Efforts by Republicans in the House of Representatives to restrain the EPA give a "flavor" of what to expect if that happens, he said.
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