New mercury standards will affect Pa. coal-fired plants

    The Environmental Protection Agency has proposed national standards for mercury emissions. Officials said the limits will cut down on childhood asthma, heart attacks and premature death. Environmental groups applaud the standards, which have been 20 years in the making. But in Pennsylvania, where half of the electricity generated is from coal-fired plants that emit mercury, industry leaders are worried.

    The EPA estimates half of Pennsylvania’s 38 power plants, scattered throughout the state, will need to be retrofitted to capture mercury and other toxins before they are released into the air.

    Doug Biden, president of the Electric Power Generation Association, a Pennsylvania energy industry group, said some of the state’s smaller, older plants may end up closing if they can’t remain competitive in the face of multimillion-dollar updates. Biden said the proposed EPA rule will have a disproportionate effect on small plants, which are already the least likely to have new pollution-capturing technology in place.

    “It forces a higher relative cost on the smaller plants,” Biden said. “That’s why we expect to see a higher level of retirement on the plants.”

    Unlike the regulations for some ozone-creating gasses, larger plants that cut their emissions more than standards require will not be able to sell pollution credits to smaller, dirtier plants. The EPA said that is because the negative health effects for mercury are concentrated closer to the emission point.

    “We want to ensure that all citizens living around these plants have the benefits of the same protections,” said EPA regional administrator Shawn Gavin, “and not having it being traded to protect potentially somewhere else.”

    Exposure to mercury that works its way into waterways can cause birth defects and developmental delays.

    The proposed regulations, which will be open to public comment, will likely change before finalization in the fall. Plants will have up to four years to make necessary changes.

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