U.S. Limits Mercury Pollution as Big Coal Retreats
ATLANTA, Georgia, 23 Dec
Environmental advocates praised a recent new rule limiting pollution of mercury and other air toxins announced by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, one of several new air pollution standards set under the Barack Obama administration.
Advocates also celebrated the announcement that after a 10-year battle, LS Power has cancelled its plans to build a coal plant, Longleaf Energy station, in Blakely, Georgia.
On Wednesday, the EPA released long-awaited new standards regarding power plant emissions called the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, which will limit pollution of mercury, as well as acid gas, arsenic, cyanide, nickel, and selenium.
The rules are expected to limit mercury pollution by 90 percent.
The new rules are set to prevent an estimated 11,000 premature deaths and 4,700 heart attacks each year, according to the EPA. The rules will also prevent 130,000 cases of childhood asthma symptoms and about 6,300 fewer cases of acute bronchitis among children per year.
The U.S. Congress passed the Clean Air Act amendments in 1990 requiring, among other things, that the EPA regulate toxic air pollutants including mercury. It took 20 years for the EPA to finally act.
"Utility and coal companies fought this rule every step of the way," Jennette Gayer, policy advocate with Environment Georgia, told IPS. "There was another rule raised in the (George W.) Bush administration that didn't even come close to what Congress intended. It's been in and out of court several times."
"It's exactly what they needed to do. They were under a lot of pressure to back off and they didn't," she said.
"We think it's a really historic rule... and will have a huge impact across the country in cleaning up mercury which is a dangerous neuro- toxin. We think it's very exciting and a long time coming," Gayer added.
In a statement, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said, "With these standards that were two decades in the making, EPA is rounding out a year of incredible progress on clean air in America with another action that will benefit the American people for years to come."
Earlier this year, the EPA also announced a Cross-State Air Pollution Rule (CSAP), which placed limits on pollution of nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide, and which had been the most significant anti-air pollution rule since the 1990s.
Some energy companies are complaining about the new rules.
However, one operator of a proposed new, less polluting coal plant praised the new rules.
"We have finally received some key guidelines on the amount and timing of critical emissions by the EPA to allow the industry to take some course of action. For us, opportunities for job creation and next generation energy solutions with lower emissions have been stalled for years awaiting the rules of the game," Albert Lin, CEO of Emberclear, said in a statement.
Emberclear is working on plans to open the Good Spring IGCC coal plant in northeastern Pennsylvania within the next few years.
As previously reported by IPS, a number of coal plants announced in July 2011 that they would be closing, while other proposed plants were cancelled, as a result of the CSAP, also announced in July.
One of the latest announcements by LS Power that it has abandoned plans to build a new coal plant in Georgia is particularly exciting because advocacy organisations like Friends of the Chattahoochee, GreenLaw and Sierra Club have been fighting this particular coal plant for 10 years.
"I'm delighted. I think that it took a lot longer than we expected it to. It underscores coal is not a viable source for energy in Georgia. They'll have to clean up or shut down. That will be good for our health as well as our economy," Colleen Kiernan, director of Sierra Club's Georgia Chapter, told IPS.
Friends of the Chattahoochee [River] was formed in 2001, when LS Power first announced its plans for a new coal plant in Georgia.
The organisations filed a number of legal challenges over the last four years, which made matters quite difficult for LS Power.
In one widely publicised ruling, in June 2008, Fulton County Superior Court Judge Thelma Wyatt Cummings Moore revoked the company's permit because she said it had failed to attempt to comply with the Clear Air Act, particularly in regards to carbon dioxide pollution.
At the time, the U.S. Supreme Court had only recently ruled carbon dioxide to be a pollutant.
More recently, in April 2010, Georgia's Environmental Protection Division (EPD) issued a second required permit to LS Power. The groups appealed that the public had not been allowed to participate. The EPD withdrew its permit, and had to hold public hearings before it could re-issue the permit again. When it did re-issue, the groups appealed and later filed suit.
Meanwhile, the groups also used grassroots lobbying to achieve their goals. Gayer recalls driving to over a dozen Georgia cities with an inflatable coal plant, which she used to dramatise her case. Kiernan believes 250 phone calls to Longleaf's CEO from environmental activists may have been "the straw that broke the camel's back".
The Sierra Club says Longleaf is the 160th coal plant cancelled since it launched the Beyond Coal campaign in 2005. In addition, 81 coal plants have closed or been announced for closure since 2010.
There has only been one new coal plant to break ground in the U.S. since November 2008, the proposed Kemper plant in Mississippi.
Georgia Power, which operates several coal plants in Georgia, had already announced plans to close a couple of them. According to Kiernan, Georgia Power will be considering the impact of the new mercury rule on the rest of its plants and deciding whether to upgrade or close them.