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Protecting the Public from Power Plant Air Toxics

2011 April 5

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.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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2 Responses leave one →
  1. Jack Binder permalink
    April 8, 2011

    Thank you for this article on the Power Plant Mercury and Air Toxics Standards regulation. The EPA must continue to do a fine job of protecting our vital resources. We fully support the hard work and efforts of the EPA employees to improve and protect our environment.

  2. Michael E. Bailey permalink
    April 10, 2011

    Reducing power plant pollution is a huge victory for public health and the reductions in costs from more medical expenses, early deaths, lost work time that will result from such rules cannot be over emphasized. Japan has proven that nuclear power is not a safe solution either. But now while we place importance on cleaning up the power plants we have to day, we can work on the new green energy infrastructure for the 21st Century. Best wishes, Michael E. Bailey.

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