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New Mercury Regulations For Coal Plants

Photo courtesy of the Rainforest Action Network on Flickr.
The EPA announced mercury regulations that would require coal plants to cut emissions. This plant is the Cliffside Steam Station in North Carolina run by Duke Energy .

The EPA announced yesterday new national standards for mercury emissions and other air pollutants. Within three to four years, coal plants be required to install new technology to cut back the amount of mercury released into the air from smoke stacks.

Coal-fired power plants are the largest emitters of mercury, and Texas has about 20 coal plants in operation. More are scheduled to be built. White Stallion, the coke-petroleum plant proposed for the Corpus Christi area, is supposed to have "activated carbon to remove mercury," according to its website.

The EPA says the technology is "widely available."

The new power plant mercury and air toxics standards - which eliminate 20 years of uncertainty across industry - would require many power plants to install widely available, proven pollution control technologies to cut harmful emissions of mercury, arsenic, chromium, nickel and acid gases, while preventing as many as 17,000 premature deaths and 11,000 heart attacks a year.

But there-in lies one argument. The power industry says the new technology still needs development and is very costly. The other argument is that the science is still uncertain about how much mercury already exists in the environment and whether regulating it would be beneficial. The Department of Energy states on its website that mercury emission levels are coming down.

The amount of mercury being deposited today on land and in water is actually much lower than in recent decades. Peat cores from Minnesota, for example, show that mercury deposition was highest in the 1950s, with levels about 10 times greater than those before 1900. By the 1980s, however, depositions had fallen to less than half of the 1950s. Emissions data from Sweden and measurements of mercury levels in birds and other animals in the United Kingdom also show a consistent pattern suggesting that mercury levels reached a peak around 1960.

The DOE goes on to state a reason could be the use of mercury in batteries, fungicides, and paints have been reduced.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality would not comment on the standards but issued this statement.

The TCEQ has not had the opportunity to preview or provide input to the proposed power plant rules, so it will take some time to evaluate the 900+ pages of regulations.  It is important to note that Texas already controls mercury emissions in new power plant permits, through a case-by-case Maximum Achievable Control Technology strategy, based on the type of equipment the company is proposing and the type of coal they are proposing to use.

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