EPA's revised air toxics rule raises red flags for enviros

Posted: Mar 12, 2013

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Coal power

The revised U.S. EPA rule for curbing new power plants' emissions of mercury and other toxics could result in more pollution, environmental groups are warning as the White House begins reviewing the regulation.

At issue are the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) for new sources that EPA sent to the Office of Management and Budget on Tuesday. EPA has said it expects to finalize the revisions by the end of the month.

EPA issued a revised rule in November that slightly lowers the legal limits on mercury and acid gases for new power plants fired by coal and oil. At the time, EPA said overall health benefits would not be affected because plants would still need the same pollution-control technologies that they would have used to meet the original regulations (Greenwire, Nov. 19, 2012).

But several environmental groups warn that the changes will damage air quality and could even let power plants use weaker pollution controls.

"I think this is one of these cases of misdirection by the agency," said Jim Pew, a staff attorney at Earthjustice. "Saying all of the pollution control technology will be the same is like saying only that you're going to buy a car. That could be a jalopy or a Rolls-Royce. There's a wide variation in this technology."

Pew added that plants could also run the pollution technologies less often if the standards were lowered.

Earthjustice, the Environmental Defense Fund, the Southern Environmental Law Center, the Sierra Club and the American Lung Association were among the groups that filed a critique of the rule revisions in January.

MATS rules were among the biggest air regulations prepared by EPA in President Obama's first term. The agency said reducing mercury, particulate matter and other air pollutants from new sources could prevent up to 11,000 premature deaths, 4,700 heart attacks and 130,000 asthma attacks per year.

But industry challenged the rules as too expensive and intrusive. Trade groups filed a number of petitions, prompting EPA to issue the technical reconsiderations. The agency is also facing legal challenges to the MATS standards, including one specifically focused on the new source rule.

EPA has said petitions and revisions are not outside the norm for complicated air regulations. Speaking late last year, EPA air chief Gina McCarthy -- who is now Obama's nominee for EPA administrator -- called the reconsideration "very limited rulemaking."

In separate comments on the reconsideration, industry officials said they supported lowering the standards, although they expressed concern with the reconsideration and said it should go further. They said that the new revisions did not acknowledge the variability in emissions over the life cycle of a coal-fired plant and that the agency had based its rules on short-term tests that did not reflect the realities of pollution control technology.

The reconsideration covers a number of factors in the rule, including limits on mercury, sulfur dioxide, and emissions from the startup and shutdown periods for power plants.

Pamela Campos, an attorney with the Environmental Defense Fund, said in an interview that although EPA is right that even the revised standards will be better than having nothing in place, it does matter to what degree the standards are implemented.

She said it was unclear what EPA's final standards would look like when they emerge from OMB later this month but added that she hoped they would reflect environmentalists' comments.

"It's EPA's responsibility under the Clean Air Act to propagate the most stringent standards possible," Campos said. "We've got the technology to dramatically reduce mercury and toxic gases, and we should be using it as much as possible. That's the central point of all of this."

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