- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Clean up or shut down.

That’s the decision facing hundreds of the nation’s oldest and dirtiest power plants under an Environmental Protection Agency rule announced Wednesday that will force plants to control mercury and other toxic pollutants for the first time.

The long overdue national standards, already under attack from some industry groups, are meant to rein in the largest remaining source of uncontrolled toxic pollution in the U.S. the emissions from the nation’s coal- and oil-fired power plants.

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About half of the 1,200 coal- and oil-fired units nationwide still lack modern pollution controls, despite the EPA in 1990 getting the authority from Congress to control toxic air pollution from power plant smokestacks. A decade later, in 2000, the agency concluded it was necessary to clamp down on the emissions to protect public health.

At a news conference Wednesday at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson said the regulation was the Obama administration’s “biggest clean-air action yet.”

The administration was under court order to issue a new rule, after a court threw out an attempt by the George W. Bush administration to exempt power plants from toxic air pollution controls.

“Before this rule, there were no national standards limiting the amount of mercury, arsenic, chromium, nickel and acid gases that power plants across the country could release into the air that we breathe,” said Ms. Jackson, listing the contaminants linked to cancer, IQ loss, heart disease and lung disease that are covered by the rule, and that also pollute lakes, streams and fish.

When fully implemented in 2016, regulators say, the standards will slash mercury pollution from burning coal by 90 percent, lung-damaging acid gases by 88 percent and soot-producing sulfur dioxide by 41 percent.

Power plant operators will have to choose between installing pollution control equipment, switching to cleaner-burning natural gas or shutting down their plants. None of those choices comes cheap the EPA estimates the rule will cost $9.6 billion annually, making it one of the most expensive the agency has ever issued.

Some power producers intensely lobbied the Obama administration to weaken the rule and delay it, and Republicans in Congress passed legislation to do so, saying it would threaten jobs and raise electricity prices.

In a memorandum, President Obama directed the EPA to ensure that implementation of the rule “proceed in a cost-effective manner that ensures electric reliability” but did not halt the agency’s efforts.

Environmentalists said Wednesday that the added flexibility did not jeopardize the public health benefits of the regulation.

“After more than two decades of delay, dirty coal-fired power plants are going to be cleaned up in short order,” said Frank O’Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch, who said the EPA “bent over backwards” to accommodate concerns about reliability.

But Oklahoma Sen. James M. Inhofe, the top Republican on the Senate’s environment committee and a frequent EPA critic, said he would file a joint resolution, a rarely used congressional tactic, to get the rule overturned.

The American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, which is an association of companies producing electricity from coal, said the rule will destroy jobs, raise the cost of energy and make electricity less reliable. A study by the group estimated that as much as 12 percent of the coal-fired generation would be forced to retire because of the regulation.

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