Mercury pollution compromises “clean coal” efforts

Dec 10, 2011

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INTRO: Half of the airborne mercury pollution in the US comes from coal-fired power plants. After years of study and debate, the Environmental Protection Agency is planning to announce new limits on mercury from coal plants in November. Meanwhile, utilities are scrambling to meet other new federal regulations and industry groups are asking the government to slow down. Grant Gerlock reports.

GRANT GERLOCK: On a warm, fall evening a fisherman casts his line from the shore of Bluestem Lake, sending ripples in every direction across the glassy surface. This small lake near Lincoln, Nebraska is five miles north of a coal-fired power plant. It’s also one of 85 bodies of water in the state under a consumption advisory for fish found to have elevated levels of mercury in their tissue. Ken Winston is with the Nebraska chapter of the Sierra Club.

KEN WINSTON: When you burn coal, mercury goes up into the atmosphere. It comes down in the form of rain. Fish eat it. People eat the fish. It can be very damaging and have long term negative impact on the development of children.

GERLOCK: The EPA says its proposed new mercury rules could reduce emissions across the country by 91 percent. That will take some heavy lifting by power companies. Take the Nebraska Public Power District. Based on the proposed rule, NPPD would need to add equipment that uses activated carbon to remove even more mercury than control systems already in place. Environmental Manager, Joe Citta.

JOE CITTA: The system is several million dollars, but what really makes it expensive is the operating cost because activated carbon is rather pricey.

GERLOCK: The utility will spend 35 million dollars to meet another new regulation reducing smog-forming pollutants that cross state lines. That rule, which was announced in July and takes effect in January, requires more cuts in pollutants like nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide than many in the industry expected. And Citta says the EPA is setting some tight deadlines.

CITTA: Especially when you have to install equipment…When you have to design, procure, and then install it, some of the compliance periods are pretty challenging.

GERLOCK: Nebraska utilities feeling rushed by regulation are hoping to get some extra time. The state attorney general’s office is working on a lawsuit against the interstate smog rule that a spokesperson says would protect utilities and consumers from costly federal overreach. A bill in the House of Representatives could slow things down by commissioning a study on the economic impact of the EPA’s emissions agenda. Steve Gates of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Energy says it’s a reaction to a lot of regulation in a short period of time.

STEVE GATES: In a state like Nebraska where 65 percent of our electricity comes from coal, something’s going to happen and the guess is electricity prices go up immediately. You know, there’s just a lot of economic implications that really should be looked at before we jump into something that no one knows the outcome economically.

GERLOCK: Nebraska rails connect the coal fields of Wyoming’s Powder River Basin to power plants in the Midwest and southern Plains. Gates says the state’s economic ties to coal show the advantage of having easy access to inexpensive energy.

GATES: We’re fortunate enough to be in the top ten lowest states for electricity in the country. What we need to do is find a balance between reducing emissions the best we can while also keeping an eye on what we’re going to do to local economies if we enact something too quickly.

GERLOCK: The EPA claims that the mercury rule will have a positive economic impact in the end with health savings up to 140 billion dollars from reduced asthma, heart disease and other serious ailments. Gates says the EPA underestimates the cumulative impact of multiple rules coming down at once, particularly in a bad economy. The Sierra Club’s Ken Winston believes power companies are capable of covering costs that they have not paid in the past.

WINSTON: They can absorb the cost of making these changes much more easily than a person can. An individual whose child doesn’t develop appropriately because they’ve had mercury poisoning, that’s a life that’s destroyed and we can’t tolerate that.