American thermal power plants under mercury regulation

US Environmental Protection Agency's mercury and air toxics standards will be effective from December 2014

By Sanjeev Kumar Kanchan
Published: Wednesday 04 January 2012

Indian pollution control authorities could take a cue from the US, which has issued the first-of-its-kind standards for regulating mercury emissions from thermal power plants. The Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS), issued by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on December 16 last year, will be effective from December 2014. The EPA was supposed to probe mercury emissions from power plants under the Clean Air Act (CAA) which came into effect in 1990, but the regulations have been released only now.

Earlier in March 2005, EPA had issued a Clean Air Mercury Rule to permanently cap and reduce mercury emissions from coal-based power plants. The rule was, however, vacated in 2008 by the District of Columbia circuit court. Mercury and other toxic air pollutants emissions from coal and fuel oil-fired power plants are collectively one of the largest sources of such pollution in the US. More than 7,000 power plants with 16,000 generating units and combined capacity of 1,100 gigawatt will be covered by the standards.

After signing the order, Lisa Jackson, EPA administrator, was quoted by CNN saying the standards “are an important step forward in EPA's efforts to safeguard the health of millions of Americans." Under these standards, American power plants have to put in place proven and widely available pollution technologies to control and cut harmful emissions, she added.

During 1990, other than power plants, medical waste incinerators and municipal waste combustion devices were the other two major mercury emitters, contributing two third of the total mercury emissions in the US. These two sectors have had emission standards under CAA for years and, by 2005, reduced mercury emission by 96-98 per cent. The power plants were not covered by any standards, and therefore, mercury emission reduction from them was just 1 per cent by 2005. Apart from mercury, coal and oil-based power plants also emit many of the 187 hazardous air pollutants listed in the CAA, which will also be regulated under MATS.

Mercury is a potent neurotoxin and it is estimated that the reduction of mercury and other air toxins emission through MATS will provide between $37 billion and $90 billion in health benefits for the American people.

MATS implementation is flexible. It gives three years to power plants to comply with the rules and an additional one year security-based extension from the president.


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