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. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will begin regulating mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants for the first time, the latest in a string of new regulations that has Republicans bent on reining in the federal body. (AP Photo)


It’s coming down to the wire for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to finalize the first-ever limits on the emissions of toxic air pollutants from coal-fired power plants.  NPR’s Elizabeth Shogren explains:

More than 20 years ago, Congress ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate toxic air pollution. It’s done that for most industries, but not the biggest polluters — coal and oil-burning power plants.

The EPA now plans to change that later this week, by setting new rules to limit mercury and other harmful pollution from power plants.

… When President George W. Bush took office, the power industry persuaded his EPA to adopt soft limits on mercury, but federal courts said that regulation was too weak, so it never went into effect.

Now, the court has set a deadline of Friday for the EPA to issue a new rule. The language the EPA wants would require quick action, stating that within three years, power plants that burn coal would have to cut more than 90 percent of the mercury from their exhaust.

They’d also have to slash arsenic, acid gases and other pollutants that cause premature deaths, asthma attacks and cancer. But even now, some power companies have been furiously fighting the EPA’s rule — especially its deadlines.

We’ve written about these rules — and the backlash against them by the local powers that be in coal country —  before here, here and here.  Earlier this week, the State Journal’s great reporter, Pam Kasey, had a local update on the story. Unfortunately, the headline probably overstated the case, perhaps leading people to again not understand that these AEP plants in West Virginia were going to close anyway, with or without the EPA rule. Pam’s story explains the situation more clearly:

In West Virginia, AEP has said it would shut down Appalachian Power Co.’s 1,105-MW Philip Sporn plant in Mason County and 439-MW Kanawha River plant in Kanawha County, along with Ohio Power Co.’s 713-MW Kammer plant in Marshall County. The plants represent more than 2,200 megawatts of coal-fired generating capacity in the state and about 240 jobs.

They accounted for about 7 percent of coal burned for power in the state in 2010 — not all of which is West Virginia coal. However, because they are old and inefficient, they accounted for only about one-tenth of one percent of West Virginia generation, according to the Energy Information Administration.

Asked whether these old plants wouldn’t be closing anyway, Appalachian Power Co. spokeswoman Jeri Matheney said they would, but not all together and so quickly.

And Pam did something much of the rest of the West Virginia media refuse to do … She explained the public health benefits of EPA’s proposal:

Mercury is a neurotoxin to which fetuses and children are particularly susceptible, while other targeted emissions cause cancer, chronic and acute respiratory disorders, and other illnesses.

The rule will require expensive upgrades to or installations of new emissions controls by Jan. 1, 2015, at an estimated 1,200 coal-fired units and 150 oil-fired units at 525 power plants.

When the agency issued its proposed rule in March, it estimated the 2016 cost of compliance at $10.9 billion. The 2016 benefits — realized primarily through 6,800 to 17,000 premature deaths avoided but also through the avoidance of 11,000 non-fatal heart attacks, more than 300,000 cases of respiratory illness including aggravated asthma and acute and chronic bronchitis, and 850,000 days of missed work — came to $59 billion to $140 billion.

My buddy Jim Bruggers at the Courier-Journal has recently reported:

Environmentalists are getting word that the White House may relax the EPA’s planned new rules on mercury and other toxic chemicals.

“We are informed reliably that the White House Office of Management and Budget, at the behest of the coal-burning electric power industry, is now pushing the EPA to weaken its mercury pollution control requirements in its upcoming toxic pollution rule for power plants,” reports longtime clean air advocate Frank O’Donnell. “Power companies could emit almost 20 percent more mercury under the dirty power industry scheme being promoted by OMB bean counters.”

It’s worth remembering that, back in September, President Obama personally blocked EPA from implementing new regulations to reduce smog …