Health advocates across America are applauding the new Mercury and Air Toxics Standards for power plants.

“Cleaner, healthier air will save lives,” said Carrie Nyssen, regional director of Advocacy for the American Lung Association of the Rocky Mountain Pacific.

Air pollution emitted by coal-fired power plants can cause cancer and cardiovascular disease; harm the kidneys, lungs and nervous system; and even kill. The Mercury and Air Toxics Standards will reduce these pollutants and prevent 130,000 childhood asthma attacks and 11,000 premature deaths each year, the American Lung Association says.

Critics have said these rules, which were mandated by federal law 21 years ago, may threaten the nation’s electricity supply. However, coal-fired electric plants in Montana already are in compliance with the mercury standard announced last month.

Mercury in Montana

Back in 2002, the EPA’s toxic release inventory showed that the Colstrip power plants in southeast Montana emitted 760 pounds of mercury into the air, making Colstrip the 22nd highest source of mercury pollution among 500 plants nationwide. Including other coal-fired plants, Montana’s mercury air emissions totaled 875 pounds in 2002.

Department of Environmental Quality Director Richard Opper reported to the 2011 Legislature that the state’s mercury rule, which went into effect in 2010, had already “kept 770 pounds of mercury from entering the atmosphere.”

Several years ago, when the George W. Bush administration started writing the mercury rules, states were told to prepare to implement them. Montana and a dozen other states got that job done. However, lawsuits delayed and then restarted federal work on mercury rules.

“Our facilities really got a head start on this. That’s good for our health,” Opper said.

Compliance at Colstrip

David Hoffman, director of external affairs for PPL Montana, said the controls his company put in place to reduce mercury emissions also help control the acid gases that the new EPA rules cover. The biggest impact on PPL Montana’s coal-fired plants will be new rules on particulate emissions. The company expects that it will need to work on the scrubber at Colstrip units 1 and 2 to meet new particulate rules. The Corette plant in Billings presents a bigger challenge; it may need new equipment to comply, Hoffman said, adding that the cost is “going to be significant.”

The EPA estimates that the final rules will cause electricity rates to go up an average of 3 percent in the contiguous 48 states. And the agency estimates that the rules will prevent as many as 11,000 premature deaths and 4,700 heart attacks annually.

“Health benefits far outweigh the costs of compliance,” said Lisa Jackson, EPA administrator.

The EPA says the final rule requires use of “widely available, proven pollution controls that are already in use at more than half of the nation’s coal-fired power plants.”

Manufacturing, engineering, installing and maintaining pollution controls to meet these standards will provide as many as 46,000 short-term construction jobs and 8,000 long-term utility jobs, according to EPA estimates.

Responsible energy

How big a problem is mercury pollution?

It’s a bigger concern in New England where wind patterns tend to carry emissions from other states. But even in Montana, dozens of lakes have such high levels of mercury that people are advised to avoid or limit consumption of fish caught in them. Mercury is particularly bad for children and women of childbearing age because of the damage it does to a developing fetus and to a child’s growing brain.

In 1990, when George H.W. Bush was in the White House, health advocates celebrated approval of bipartisan legislation that would require coal-fired power plants to drastically reduce their emissions of mercury and other toxics. With rules released just before Christmas 2011, Americans will breathe easier by 2015.

As Opper said, “We (Montanans) do have a good rule in place. It hasn’t stopped business activity. In fact, it provided jobs to install the mercury controls.”

Reducing toxic emissions is responsible public policy and good business. The success of these rules will demonstrate that coal-fired plants can provide reliable power — and cleaner air. America doesn’t need to shut down coal power; it needs to clean it up.

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