Published: Wednesday, December 21, 2011, 2:32 PM
Updated: Wednesday, December 21, 2011, 7:19 PM
By John Funk, The Plain Dealer
For the first time ever, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday issued regulations limiting power plant emissions of mercury and other toxic metals.
Environmentalist and health-related organizations lauded the agency for issuing the rules after what they said were years of industry-induced delays.
“We can breathe easier today,” the Natural Resources Defense Council said in a prepared statement. “The EPA did exactly what it was designed to do: look out for our health and our environment.
“Dirty coal-fired power plants will have to clean up the toxic soup of emissions that is polluting our air and making people sick, especially children.”
The standards–which will become effective in 2014 and 2015 — will regulate power plant emissions of mercury arsenic, nickel, selenium, cyanide and other acid gases.
Utilities were slow to react Wednesday as teams of engineers were poring through the 1,100 pages of new regulations. But Ohio’s three largest utilities — FirstEnergy Corp. of Akron, American Electric Power of Columbus and Duke Energy Ohio of Cincinnati — all face expensive upgrades and possible shutdowns of some power plants.
FirstEnergy Corp. estimated its cost alone would be $2 billion to $3 billion. FirstEnergy would not be able to raise power prices to pay for those upgrades because the company’s power plans are no longer regulated by the state.
Ray Evans, FirstEnergy’s executive director of environmental, said it will take the company about two months to figure out a course of action.
“It will be a challenge for all of us in the industry,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of work to do.”
The Associated Press estimated that as many as 32 power plants mostly fueled with coal in a dozen states, including Ohio, would be closed and 36 would be in danger of closing.
The EPA has previously estimated that if utilities choose to close their dirtiest power plants rather than upgrade the pollution controls, the total amount of power lost would be enough to supply 11 million homes.
Power plants most likely to close would be smaller and older.
That’s because installing clean-up equipment would not only be costly but would also reduce the output of the plants.
Among FirstEnergy’s power plants that could be closed are Lake Shore in Cleveland, Bay Shore near Toledo and a plant in Ashtabula.
The largest boiler still functioning regularly at the Eastlake power plant in Lake County is on the Associated Press’ list of plants that could be in danger of closure.
Evans said FirstEnergy’s team has made no closing decisions. He said the engineers would look at each boiler, including the emission equipment already installed, the exact kind of fuel it burns and its location within the company’s network of power plants.
In some cases, it might make sense to switch fuels, he said. But in others, it could make more economic sense to permanently shut down the plant.
The pollution controls the EPA wants utilities to install are proven technologies and are widely available, EPA administrator Lisa Jackson said in a news conference at the Children’s National Medical Center in Washington.
Only about half of the nation’s 1,100 coal-burning utility power plants are equipped with the technology today, she said.
President Barack Obama released a statement saying the new regulations will produce major health benefits for millions of Americans — including children, older Americans and other vulnerable populations.
The EPA said the elimination of the pollutants will prevent as many as 11,000 premature deaths and 4,700 heart attacks a year and prevent about 130,000 cases of childhood asthma symptoms and about 6,300 fewer cases of acute bronchitis among children each year.
In addition to support from the Natural Resources Defense Council, other groups, including a coalition of eight national environmental groups, lauded the Obama administration.
“President Obama and the Environmental Protection Agency have taken a bold and important step to protect kids, wildlife and public health from dangerous air pollution caused by power plant emissions of mercury, arsenic, acid gases and other toxics,” the coalition said in a statement. “Even in small amounts these pollutants are linked to cancer, heart disease, neurological damage, birth defects, asthma attacks and premature death.”
In Ohio, Julian Boggs, state policy advocate with Environment Ohio, said the rules will cut mercury emissions by 91 percent.”
This landmark achievement reflects what every parent knows, which is that powering our homes should not poison Ohio’s kids,” Boggs said
And the American Lung Association’s Ohio office said the EPA’s action “means that people will soon begin to breathe easier.” There will be “no more delays for a healthier Ohio,” spokeswoman Shelly Kiser said.
Even fishermen applauded the rules. Trout Unlimited issued a statement in support.
“Emissions from fossil fuel-fired power plants are blamed for ‘acid rain,’ which can eventually make rivers and streams uninhabitable to native fish and to other organisms that depend on clean water for survival,” the group said. “Additionally, mercury from power-plant emissions can build up in fish, making them unsafe to eat. This rule makes good sense.”