Protecting the Public from Power Plant Air Toxics

By Ellen Kurlansky

I will admit that there were times in the past decade and one-half that I feared we would never reduce toxic emissions from power plants . Last month, EPA proposed a regulation to reduce emissions of mercury and other toxic pollutants from coal- and oil-fired power plants. These plants are a very large source of these pollutants, which along with mercury include other metals such as arsenic and cadmium, and acid gases such as hydrogen chloride and hydrogen cyanide. The regulation, called the Power Plant Mercury and Air Toxics Standards will have tremendous benefits for public health. It is expected to prevent between 6,800 and 17,000 premature deaths, 11,000 heart attacks, 120,000 asthma attacks, and 850,000 lost work days every year beginning in 2016.

The regulations had been long delayed, first because the studies that were required by the Clean Air Act took us longer than Congress had envisioned and then because the EPA took a tack during the last administration that was resoundingly rejected by the Court. But finally, in 2009 we set out to develop the regulation. One of our managers’ guiding principles was that the regulations adhere closely to the requirements of the Clean Air Act so that if it is challenged in the courts we will prevail and the benefits to public health will not be further delayed.

Many power plants in the US operate today with modern pollution controls. But many do not. Cost effective technology to control air pollution is available and proven. The Mercury and Air Toxics standard will mean that all coal- and oil-fired plants will need to limit their air emissions.

Developing this proposal was a massive undertaking involving staff from many offices at EPA. It required teams of engineers, economists, lawyers, and scientists. We had a hard deadline of March 16 ordered by the Court and so toward the end everyone was working evenings, weekends, pretty much all the time. I was struck, however, by the good humor and even excitement exhibited by most of the staff throughout those last busy days. I think people felt really good knowing that the regulation would be so important to improving public health. I personally felt very fortunate to have had the opportunity to be part of that.

About the author: Ms. Kurlansky is a policy analyst in the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation.  She has broad experience in environmental and energy policy gained from work at other EPA offices and at other government agencies, non-profit organizations, and as a consultant.  Ms. Kurlansky, who was a Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco, has a B.A. in Political Science and an M.A. in Economics.