Coal Tattoo

Piles of coal are shown at NRG Energy’s W.A. Parish Electric Generating Station Wednesday, March 16, 2011, in Thompsons, Texas. The plant, which operates natural gas and coal-fired units, is one of the largest power plants in the United States. (AP Photo)

Am I the only one who was surprised to not hear members of West Virginia’s congressional delegation jump out to immediately slam the Obama administration’s new proposal to reduce toxic air pollution from coal-fired power plants?

Maybe I missed it. But I didn’t see or hear a word yesterday out of our Senators and House members. And nothing this morning, either.

We did get a news release today from the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection titled, WVDEP provides information about WV mercury emissions:

For your information in reporting about the situation in West Virginia, the WVDEP’s Division of Air Quality is providing a chart showing the amount of mercury reductions that have been achieved by coal-fired power plants in West Virginia in the last decade through the use of controls installed to comply with air rules aimed at reducing air pollutants other than mercury.

The attached bar chart shows that from 2000 to 2009, coal-fired power plants in West Virginia reduced mercury emissions by about 4,500 pounds, or 64 percent.

There’s the chart, or you can click here on WVDEP’s Web site to view it in another format.

I wasn’t sure exactly what point WVDEP was trying to make, but agency spokeswoman Kathy Cosco told me in an e-mail message this morning:

We aren’t taking sides, just providing factual information about the current status in West Virginia, in case writers want to localize the story. Those who have opinions regarding the issue could use this information either way, really. One could interpret this to mean that new regulations aren’t necessary, while the other side could point to this and say, look at how successful previous regulations have been – we are on the right path.

I was left wondering, though, why WVDEP didn’t also release any sort of information about the public health effects of  remaining mercury emissions from power plants or about the impacts of the other toxic emissions that the EPA proposal aims to reduce.

Cosco told me that WVDEP just say the EPA proposal for the first time yesterday and is just starting to review it. She said agency officials don’t know yet how many West Virginia plants already comply with the proposed emissions limits. But a very quick review I did this morning of EPA Toxics Release Inventory data indicated that the vast majority of the mercury reductions touted in that EPA chart came from a small number of West Virginia power plants that have over the last decade installed advanced pollution controls.

The knee-jerk reaction from some is obviously to complain this is just another example of how the Obama administration is out to get the coal industry or how EPA is going to cause all of our electricity rates to skyrocket — or if you don’t like coal, how the rules might help strangle the industry out of existence.

But if you read closely the comments of EPA in announcing this proposal, you see some interesting stuff:

Power plants are the largest remaining source of several toxic air pollutants – responsible for half of mercury and more than half of acid gas emissions in the United States. In the power sector alone, coal-fired power plants are responsible for 99 percent of mercury emissions. Currently, more than half of all coal-fired power plants already deploy the widely available pollution control technologies that allow them to meet these important standards. Once final, these standards will ensure the remaining coal-fired plants, roughly 44 percent, take similar steps to decrease dangerous pollutants.

The updated standards will provide a first-ever level playing field for all power plants across the country, ensure that they play by the same rules, and provide more certainty to business. The proposed rule provides up to 4 years for facilities to meet the standards and, once fully implemented, will prevent 91 percent of mercury in coal from being released into the air.

EPA believes its proposal will provide $59 billion a year in benefits and save 17,000 lives, while costing just $10.9 billion  a year — and creating 31,000 short-term construction jobs and 9,000 long-term utility jobs.

Will the proposal get a fair hearing from West Virginia leaders? Stay tuned …