Congress gave the EPA the authority to limit these toxins — which include mercury, arsenic, acid gas, nickel, selenium and cyanide — in 1990, but disagreements among federal regulators, industry officials and activists over how best to regulate them have stalled action until now.
The Washington Post reported the full details of the regulation on Friday, the day EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson signed the regulation into law, but the agency did not publicly disclose the rule until Wednesday.
“This is a giant victory for public health, especially the health of our children,” Jackson told reporters in a telephone call Wednesday, noting that she knew the full impact of polluted air, because as the mother of a son with asthma, “Fifteen years ago, my youngest son spent his first Christmas in a hospital, struggling to breathe.”
The EPA estimates the new regulation’s safeguards — which are slated to fully take effect in three years — will prevent as many as 11,000 premature deaths and 4,700 heart attacks a year by 2016 and will cost the industry $9.6 billion in compliance that year. By comparison, the agency projects reducing these emissions will save between $37 billion and $90 billion in 2016 in annual health costs and lost workdays.
The regulation could face legal and legislative hurdles, however: Some utilities have vowed to fight it in court, while the top Republican on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, James M. Inhofe (Okla.), said Wednesday he would seek to block it in Congress.
Some utility and coal industry officials said cleaning up these plants will cause severe economic hardship and could lead to power outages in regions of the country.
The rule will take effect in about 60 days. Along with the rule, the administration issued a presidential memorandum clarifying that an additional fourth year for compliance “should be broadly available to sources, consistent with the requirements” of the Clean Air Act. The memorandum notes that the EPA also has the ability to issue an administrative order for a fifth year, “should unusual circumstances arise that warrant such flexibility.”
Jackson estimated that only 4.7 gigawatts of the nation’s 1,000 gigawatts of electricity capacity, or less than one-half of 1 percent of the nation’s plants, would have to shut down as a result of the new standards.
Ann Weeks, who is senior counsel for the Clean Air Task Force and has sued the EPA over its failure to issue the mercury standards in the past, said, “Our work tells us this is feasible within the time constraints under the Clean Air Act, that it will not create electric reliability problems and that it will have very significant health benefits for Americans.”