By: Ashley Payne, Senior Staff Member
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “mercury is a naturally occurring element found in air, water and soil.” Mercury is also found in many rocks, including coal. Mercury is released into the environment when coal is burned. In fact, “coal-burning power plants are the largest human-caused source of mercury emissions in the United States.” This becomes a problem once the mercury from the air settles in water, resulting in mercury build-up in fish, shellfish, and animals that eat fish. While exposure to mercury at high levels may cause harm to the brain, heart, kidney, lungs and immune system, research indicates most people’s fish consumption is not a health concern. However, such mercury levels may cause harm to unborn babies and young children’s nervous system, causing potential learning disabilities.
In response to these potential health risks, congress enacted the Clean Air Act. Specifically, section 112 addresses emissions of hazardous air pollutants. “Section 112 requires that EPA establish emissions standards that require the maximum degree of reduction in emissions of hazardous air pollutions.” On December 21, 2011, the EPA finally demanded that coal-fired power plants reduce their emissions by 90 percent as the 1990 Clean Air Act demanded. These regulations are in response to a Consent Decree of the D.C. Court of Appeals requiring a proposal by March 16, 2011, and a final rule by December 16, 2011.
These rules ultimately establish a limit for emissions for qualifying facilities that must be met within four years. There are currently about 1,100 coal-fired burners being used at 600 power plants nationwide. The EPA estimates that the implementation of this statute will cost approximately $9.6 billion. However, the EPA also estimates that the health benefits will equal somewhere between $37 billion to $90 billion. Ultimately, these regulations may not be as beneficial as the EPA foresees. According to the executive director of the Partnership for Affordable Clean Energy, “numerous studies have shown it will result in the loss of more than one million jobs in the next decade.” The American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity indicated that the rules could cost an average of 183,000 jobs every year from 2012-2020. An associated press analysis “estimated that of the nation’s 600 coal-fired power plants, more than thirty-two would likely close because they would not be cost-effective to run under the new rules.”
While it is hard to tell at this juncture how the new mercury rules will ultimately affect the coal-fired power plants, one thing is certain: the $9.6 billion dollar burden placed upon such facilities will not be easy to face. If, as is predicted, there are plant closings and a loss of jobs, the effects will be felt most harshly in those regions with the majority of coal-fired power plants—the mid-east. However, if the benefits are as the EPA describes them—avoiding premature deaths, heart attacks, respiratory problems, etc.—the temporary economic hardship may well be worth the cost.
 Environmental Protection Agency, Summary of the Clean Air Act http://www.epa.gov/lawsregs/laws/caa.html (last updated Aug. 11, 2011).
 Ken Silverstein, Obama Showers Coal With Mercury Rule, http://www.energybiz.com/article/12/01/obama-showers-coal-mercury-rule
 Environmental Protection Agency, Mercurry and Air Toxics Standards: Basic Information, http://www.epa.gov/airquality/powerplanttoxics/basic.html (last updated Jan. 17, 2012).
 Environmental Protection Agency, EPA Issues First National Standards for Mercury Pollution from Power Plants / Historic ‘mercury and air toxics standards’ meet 20-year old requirement to cut dangerous smokestack emissions, http://yosemite.epa.gov/opa/admpress.nsf/bd4379a92ceceeac8525735900400c27/bd8b3f37edf5716d8525796d005dd086!OpenDocument.
Environmental Protection Agency, Mercury and Air Toxics Standards: Regulatory Actions, http://www.epa.gov/airquality/powerplanttoxics/actions.html, (last updated Jan. 30, 2012).
 Elizabeth Weise, EPA rules target mercury pollution, toxics from power plants, http://www.usatoday.com/money/industries/energy/story/2011-12-19/power-plants-mercury-rule/52142516/1 (Jan. 21, 2011).