WASHINGTON — The Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday unveiled the first national requirement for the nation's coal-fired power plants to reduce emissions of mercury, arsenic, cyanide and other toxic pollutants.
The ruling took more than 20 years for the EPA to finish. Under the Clean Air Act, many other sources of air pollution had been required to be 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 already comply with the new requirement because of state rules. The rest are a major source of pollution, including more than half the mercury emissions in the country, the EPA said.
The ruling will require power plants to add pollution control equipment or close. Many of the plants already scheduled for closing are 50 years old or older.
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Mercury harms the nervous systems of fetuses and young children, reducing their ability to think and learn as they grow up. Other toxic pollutants covered in the ruling have been linked to cancer and other diseases.
The 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.
Compliance will cost companies $9.6 billion, the EPA estimated. It said the health benefits would outweigh that by as much as 9 to 1.
Lawmakers from coal producing and manufacturing states, including Kentucky, have been fighting the EPA all year and have proposed legislation to weaken it; a chorus of criticism came from Kentucky's representatives in Washington on Wednesday.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has helped lead the push against regulations which he and other lawmakers say will harm the coal industry, said the ruling should be overturned.
"The rule threatens the availability of reliable electricity to the American public, costs the taxpayer over $10 billion dollars each year in addition to significantly raising electricity prices, and will result in the loss of hundreds of thousands of American jobs," McConnell said. "Kentucky's approximately 18,000 coal miners are already facing an uncertain future, and these constant attacks by the administration must stop."
Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Hopkinsville, chairman of the House Energy and Power subcommittee, predicted that the new regulations would increase energy prices for homeowners and businesses.
Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Somerset, whose district contains many mining communities, said the ruling will hurt miners during an economic downturn.
Additional criticism came from U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Bowling Green, who called the ruling "one of the most expensive rules in the history of the EPA," adding that "the current impact of mercury emissions from U.S. sources is vastly overstated."
Jeff Holmstead, former EPA air administrator under George W. Bush and who now represents energy companies at Bracewell & Giuliani, predicted there would be problems with brownouts if the rule survived likely court challenges or legislative changes.
The White House released a statement that under the law, companies would have three years to reduce their mercury and other toxic substance emissions and could appeal for an additional year from state officials. 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 for an additional year.
The Kentucky Coal Association, which represents the industry in a state where more than 90 percent of the electricity is generated from coal, predicted higher costs to consumers.
Environmental groups hailed the ruling. "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."