"Cleaning up dirty coal-burning power plants is the best way to make the air healthy for the American people," said John Walke, a senior attorney and director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's Clean Air Program on Thursday when the settlement was filed in court. "This rule will drive deep cuts not just in mercury pollution, but dangerous soot pollution that leads to asthma, bronchitis, heart attacks and strokes."
Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA was required to control hazardous air pollutants from power plants by December 2002. Instead, the Bush administration asked Congress to eliminate that requirement.
The Stanton power plant near Orlando, Florida burns bituminous coal and landfill gas. (Photo courtesy Power)
Unable to win Congressional support for that request, the Bush EPA tried to declare that the required pollution controls were not necessary or appropriate.
The federal appeals court in the District of Columbia unanimously rejected that attempt in February 2008, saying that the power industry remained subject to the requirement to control the air toxics it emits, and EPA remains responsible for issuing rules governing those emissions.
Following that court victory, environmental and public health groups filed a lawsuit to compel EPA to issue its long overdue toxic air regulations.
Attorneys at Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Clean Air Task Force, Earthjustice, Natural Resources Defense Council, Southern Environmental Law Center, and Waterkeeper Alliance filed the lawsuit last December on behalf of their organizations and nine others.
The nine other plaintiff groups are the American Nurses Association, Conservation Law Foundation, Environment America, Environmental Defense Fund, Izaak Walton League of America, Natural Resources Council of Maine, The Ohio Environmental Council, Physicians for Social Responsibility and the Sierra Club.
That lawsuit was resolved with the consent decree committing EPA to enforceable schedules for proposing and adopting the required rules. The settlement has been filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
"Power plants are the largest unregulated industrial source of air toxics. It is unconscionable that 19 years after the Clean Air Act of 1990, we still do not have air toxics controls on these large existing sources of pollution," said attorney James Pew of Earthjustice. "After years of litigating this issue, our groups look forward to a productive working relationship with the agency as it finally develops these rules."
According to the schedule in the settlement, EPA must sign for publication in the Federal Register a notice of proposed rulemaking setting forth EPA's proposed emission standards for coal-fired and oil-fired power plants later than March 16, 2011.
"We are very pleased with the outcome of this case, and look forward to working with the EPA to develop emissions standards for this industry that mandate the deep cuts in this pollution that the law requires," said Ann Weeks, legal director at the Clean Air Task Force, one of the lead attorneys for the groups.
Children and women of childbearing age are at risk when power plants emit the levels of mercury they are emitting today, say the plaintiff groups, noting that all 50 states, and one U.S. territory, have declared fish advisories warning about mercury contamination.
Coal-burning power plants are the nation's largest unregulated source of mercury pollution, the plaintiff groups point out, saying in a statement Thursday that about 1,300 coal fired units at existing power plants emit at least 48 tons of mercury into the air each year.
Mercury exposure is linked to serious neurological disorders in humans, and reproductive and neurological effects in animals.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, eight percent of American women of childbearing age have mercury in their bodies at levels high enough to put their babies at risk of birth defects, learning disabilities and developmental problems.
Jon Mueller of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation pointed out the significant implications of this settlement for the Bay, saying, "A significant number of lakes and rivers within the Chesapeake Bay watershed are listed as human health hazards because they contain fish unsafe to eat due to mercury contamination. This is a travesty that can be reversed only by strictly reducing emissions from power plants. The new rules will go a long way towards achieving that goal."
"The coal-fired utility industry has been given a governmental pass to poison our air and watersheds with toxic chemicals for many years now," said Waterkeeper director of advocacy Scott Edwards. "We're hopeful that, under the current EPA, the years of irresponsible industry oversight are finally over."
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