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New Air Quality Standards Could Improve CO's Lakes, Rivers

December 22, 2011

DENVER - Coal-fired power plants will soon need to meet tough new standards designed to improve air quality. The standards were announced Wednesday by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). They will require utilities to install devices known as "scrubbers" in coal-fired power plants over the next four years, which will reduce pollutants such as mercury, arsenic and acid gases.

David Ellenberger, Rocky Mountain regional coordinator with the National Wildlife Federation, says the scrubbers will reduce mercury pollution by at least 91 percent. He adds that cleaner air translates into cleaner water for Colorado's lakes and rivers.

"It's absolutely a huge step forward in protecting public health, our children and our wildlife from these aspects of this hazardous air pollution."

High levels of mercury can cause birth defects, respiratory illnesses and heart disease. Ellenberger says 24 of Colorado's lakes currently have unsafe levels of mercury because of coal-fired air pollution.

Salida-area angling guide Bill Dvorak says mercury's poisoning effects only begin in Colorado's alpine lakes.

"Primarily, it affects fish, but then everything that eats the fish is affected, and then everything that eats the thing that eats the fish. So it works its way through the entire food chain."

Some utilities criticize the new rules as too onerous, especially as they pertain to older coal plants that may not be suitable for scrubber retrofits. The EPA estimates meeting the standards will cost utilities about $11 billion nationwide. Ellenberger claims the savings in health care costs more than make up for the expense.

"The EPA estimates that for every dollar the utilities are about to spend on pollution controls at their coal-fired power plants, public health is going to benefit by about $13, which is pretty impressive."

Ellenberger adds that the new rules will also provide a job stimulus, creating 31,000 short-term construction jobs and 9,000 permanent utility jobs nationwide.

The EPA standards are available at

Kathleen Ryan, Public News Service - CO