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New Air Pollution Rules Will Limit Mercury

New limits on mercury pollution could save lives, according to supporters of the EPA's Mercury and Air Toxics Standards. (Click/Morguefile.com)
New limits on mercury pollution could save lives, according to supporters of the EPA's Mercury and Air Toxics Standards. (Click/Morguefile.com)
December 22, 2015

ST. PAUL, Minn. - After a 20-year court fight, the Environmental Protection Agency is set to put power-plant pollution rules in place that supporters say will save thousands of lives a year.

Industry lawsuits had stopped the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards from going into effect at coal- and oil-fired power stations around the country, but a final decision by a federal appeals court cleared the way for the limits to go into effect next spring.

"These rules will save between 4,200 and 11,000 lives every year," said Jim Pew, a staff attorney for Earthjustice who helped argue the case. "The impacts of this pollution and the impacts of EPA finally moving to control it are enormous."

Opponents of the ruling, such as the National Mining Association and other coal-industry allies, asked that the rules be thrown out. Last week the District of Columbia Court of Appeals refused.

Ahead of the EPA's mercury ruling, Minnesota Power finished an emissions-reduction project at the Boswell Energy Center in Cohasset. The $260 million project is expected to lower mercury missions by about 90 percent. According to Pew, heavy-metal air pollution causes about one in 20 U.S. deaths.

"Trace levels of mercury, trace levels of arsenic, chromium, lead and lots of other toxic metals," he said, "and when you burn the coal you just move the lead and the mercury and the arsenic out of the coal and into the smoke."

The mercury standards will mark the first time some of these limits will apply to existing power plants. They have applied to newly built power stations for some time. As the legal fight ground on, Pew said, many power companies put in scrubbers and bag houses that brought their emissions into compliance. Over time, he said, many of them stopped fighting the regulations.

"The more responsible power plants have put the scrubbers on," he said, "and one reason that much of the power industry simply isn't opposing these standards is they've already taken the steps they need to take to comply."

Last month, the state's Pollution Control Agency praised Minnesota Power for working to reduce mercury pollution.

More information is online at earthjustice.org. Minnesota Power mercury-reduction information is at pca.state.mn.us.

Brandon Campbell, Public News Service - MN