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EPA announces plans to regulate mercury emissions for the first time

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has announced that it is proposing to regulate emissions from coal-fired power plants. The proposals include measures intended to limit mercury emissions and would require utilities to install the equipment necessary to eliminate 91% of all mercury emissions from such installations, within four years.

According to a presentation released by EPA, the proposals would affect 1350 coal and oil fired units at 525 power plants and, in addition to plans to introduce mercury emissions standards, include measures designed to reduce arsenic, chromium and nickel emissions, as well as those of acid gases (such as HCL and HF) and particulates. EPA is also proposing a new source performance standard (NSPS) for particulates, SO2 and NOx emissions from new sources.

The agency estimates that the new regulations could save up to 17,000 lives every year by 2015, while reducing the incidence of childhood asthma and acute bronchitis and could also prevent 850,000 lost work days a year. EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson said that the proposed regulations are required by the 1990 clean air act and puts the total cost to the power industry at US$10bn by 2015, compared to health improvements worth over US$100bn a year. Jackson also said that electricity bills would only rise by US$3-4 a month once the new regulations were fully implemented. However, the proposals are being fiercely resisted by the power sector, with some industry representatives arguing that the final bill could be much higher than projected by EPA. Scott Segal, director of the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council has argued that EPA’s cost estimates do not include indirect costs or take account of the impact of other regulations intend to reduce greenhouse gas emissions on the industry.

Of all the states in the Union, Texas is likely to be particularly affected given that it has more coal-fired power stations than any other state, with at least 17 in operation and another 12 planned and in the permitting process.  The proposals will be open to public comment for 60 days once it is published in the Federal Register and is not expected to be finalised until late this year or in early 2012.

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