A rule limiting the amount of mercury and other toxic air pollutants power plants can emit likely will force changes at coal-fired generating units in Alabama and around the country. The Environmental Protection Agency finalized the rule last month, after more than a decade of debate. Environmentalists and health advocates hailed the decision as one of the most significant public health and environmental protections in years, one that will decrease air pollution and cut the mercury contamination that has led to widespread warnings against eating fish caught in state waters. Michael Churchman, executive director of the Alabama Environmental Council, said that the new rule “is a victory for clean air in Alabama and across our country.”
But not everyone is happy with the new rule. Some in the power industry, including Alabama Power’s parent Southern Company, have complained that the rule would force either costly environmental upgrades or the shutdown of generating units in a short time frame, which could lead to higher costs for consumers and reliability problems. Some other companies in the industry, however, have urged the EPA to proceed with the rule because they have already complied and want a level playing field. An Alabama Power spokesman said the company is reviewing the rule. Utilities, which in 1990 won what was to be a temporary exemption from Clean Air Act requirements faced by other industries, will have four years to meet the limits imposed in the rule. That’s a year longer than originally proposed.
There are about 1,400 coal and oil-fired electric generating units at 600 power plants that will be covered by the standards. About 40 percent of coal-fired units don’t use pollution control devices to limit mercury, metallic toxics, acid gases and organic air toxics, including dioxin. Alabama ranks sixth in the nation for electrical power generation, and a majority of that power is generated by the nine coal-fired power plants in the state.
Nationally, EPA estimates that when the rule is fully in effect in 2016, the nation will see 2,800 fewer cases of chronic bronchitis, 4,700 fewer heart attacks and 130,000 fewer cases of aggravated asthma. The EPA estimates the new rule would decrease hospital and emergency room visits by 5,700 a year and cut by 540,000 the number of days of work people miss due to air pollution-related medical problems. The EPA estimates the new standards will prevent up to 11,000 premature deaths nationwide and 360 in Alabama, while creating up to $3 billion in health benefits in the state in 2016. However, the EPA also estimates the total national cost of the rule will be $9.6 billion a year.
Sources: Al.com, The Birmingham News and The Montgomery Advertiser
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