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The EPA Cracks Down on Coal
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by Janice Meier | 2011

—Sierra Club’s campaign to support the “air toxics” rule to limit air toxins like mercury under the Clean Air Act (CAA) is buzzing. Our support of the rule’s hearings last month with testimony and “baby stroller parades” gave needed visibility to the effects of mercury and other air toxins on human health. But this rule is actually a follow-on that reinforces several other recent EPA rules to reduce the impact of coal-fired electric generation on our air and water.

The EPA Cracks Down on Coal


By Janice Meier—Sierra Club’s campaign to support the “air toxics” rule to limit air toxins like mercury under the Clean Air Act (CAA) is buzzing. Our support of the rule’s hearings last month with testimony and “baby stroller parades” gave needed visibility to the effects of mercury and other air toxins on human health. But this rule is actually a follow-on that reinforces several other recent EPA rules to reduce the impact of coal-fired electric generation on our air and water.

Not only do these new rules improve public health and our air quality, but they also push coal ever-closer to paying its real societal, health, and environmental costs. Improving public health would lower health-care costs. As these regulations roll out, some of the nation’s dirtiest and oldest power plants will need to make significant financial investments to modernize a very old and inefficient fleet or begin the phase-out of these plants and instead invest in newer, cleaner generation like wind, solar, and efficiency. It should come as no surprise that we believe investment in clean energy is the right way to go from an economic, public health and environmental standpoint.

If you haven’t been following all of EPA’s great work, here is a run-down of the new rules and their projected impacts.  


Sulfur Dioxide  Rule

Emissions of SO2 (sulfur dioxide) lead to the formation of small particulates—very tough on the lungs. The EPA has regulated SO2, the proxy for a group of sulfur and nitrogen oxides, since 1971. The largest sources of SO2 emissions are fossil-fuel combustion at power plants (73 percent) and other industrial facilities (20 percent). What’s updated in this rule is the way that the health impact of SO2 is measured. EPA has found a way to take more targeted measurements that, when combined with dispersion (air current) modeling, yields more accurate information on how the emissions actually affect public health.

The rule is expected to prevent 2,300 to 5,900 premature deaths and 54,000 asthma attacks a year. The agency estimates the cost to industry of adopting the new rule at $1.5 billion over the next 10 years, and the value of the health benefits at $13 billion to $33 billion a year. The rule change came into effect on June 2, 2010, but some of its requirements will be rolled out through 2017.


Transport Rule

This rule, which affects only 31 eastern states plus the District of Columbia, goes hand-in-hand with the SO2 rule by requiring power plants to reduce emissions that force another state into “non-attainment” of the SO2 rule. In other words, if a coal plant in one state is passing off its pollution to another, this rule would trigger, ensuring the protection of residents who are downwind of an out-of-state plant. How do you identify an offending plant? By dispersion modeling, of course.

In April 2011, New Jersey sued over emissions from a Pennsylvania plant and the EPA ruled in New Jersey’s favor. Using their dispersion model, the EPA showed that high SO2 levels in parts of northern NJ pointed directly to the Pennsylvania plant’s emissions. The plant was ordered to lower its SO2 emissions by 81% over a three-year period. []

EPA estimates that benefits of the Transport Rule are 25 to 130 times greater than the corresponding estimated costs. The benefits come in many forms, with the largest coming from reduced premature mortality. This rule, like many of the EPA’s new safeguards, will save thousands of lives. Reduced morbidity, especially lower incidence of respiratory and heart disease, and other environmental benefits would also be achieved. The billions of dollars in savings expected from reduced health care expenditures and improved worker productivity alone would more than offset the Transport Rule’s compliance costs.

Better yet, the public health and
safety benefits of the Transport Rule come with little to no impact on consumers’ electricity rates. The EPA estimates that the rate impacts will vary from 0% to 5%, and a study funded by the Exelon Corporation, a provider of energy services including electric and natural gas distribution and the largest nuclear operator in the United States, says, “While rate increases are likely to be greatest in the states most reliant upon coal-fired generation, these states now typically enjoy among the lowest electricity prices in the country.” With respect to employment it notes, “Employment will likely rise in the short run as a consequence of the Transport Rule, due largely to investment in new pollution controls.” The study concludes, “the Transport Rule would produce significant benefits in terms of improved health outcomes, and better environmental amenities and services, which studies estimate significantly outweigh the costs.” [

EPA has proposed a phase-in approach with Phase 1 in 2012 requiring limited incremental investment in pollution control while phase 2 in 2014 would require more substantial investment. The rule will likely be finalized by the end of 2011.


Air Toxics rule

The Air Toxics (boiler MACT) rule under the Clean Air Act complements and extends the SO2 rule by setting new standards governing a wider array of power plant pollutants, including mercury. “Mercury can harm children’s developing brains, including effects on memory, attention, language, and fine motor and visual spatial skills.” It’s a “maximum achievable control technology” (MACT) rule, meaning that it enforces the use of the technology and practices used by the cleanest 12% of power plants. EPA expects the rule to prevent thousands of premature deaths and tens of thousands of heart attacks, bronchitis cases and asthma attacks and save $59-140 billion in healthcare costs in 2016. []

This rule was prompted by a 2008 lawsuit after the Bush administration refused to address air toxics. Now EPA must finish its work very quickly because, while the current rule was only proposed on March 16, 2011, it has a court-mandated final rule deadline of November 16, 2011.


Mountaintop Removal

Section 404b(J) of the Clean Water Act addresses compensatory mitigation for losses of aquatic life during the disposal of dredged or fill materials. EPA’s action was to further clarify and strengthen environmental permitting requirements for Appalachian mountaintop removal and other surface coal mining projects, in coordination with federal and state regulatory agencies. Using the best available science and following the law, the comprehensive guidance set clear benchmarks for preventing significant and irreversible damage to Appalachian watersheds at risk from mining activity. The agency issued its guidance on April 1, 2010.


Section 316b

This section of the Clean Water Act requires that the location, design, construction and capacity of cooling water intake structures reflect the best technology available for minimizing adverse environmental impact. The EPA will issue regulations to reduce injury and death of fish and other aquatic life caused by cooling water intake structures existing at power plants and factories. This includes coal-fired boiler-type power plants that intake or expel water. EPA estimates that the rule applies to an estimated 1,260 existing industrial facilities and will cost those facilities about $384 million annually. The comment period for changes to this rule expires July 19, 2011.


Coal Combustion Residual Rule

The Coal Combustion Residual (coal ash) rule addresses residues from the combustion of coal in power plants and materials captured by pollution control technologies such as scrubbers. Environmental concerns from coal ash include pollution from impoundment and landfills leaching into ground water and structural failures of impoundments. The rule appears to have been motivated by a massive toxic ash spill in Tennessee in 2008. It would regulate the disposal of coal ash by removing its exemption from the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. The rule was proposed June 21, 2010 and public comments closed on November 19, 2010.


Together the EPA estimates that these rules and other state action could reduce the “coal fleet” (coal-fired power plants) by 10 GW by 2015. However, industry estimates that the reduction could be as much as 40-80 GW (of 325 GW nationally), and these disputed numbers are symptomatic of disparate cost perspectives.

Of course, we are seeing pushback on these regulations from coal plant owners, often with the same exaggerated arguments which were used to defeat Maryland’s offshore wind bill, claiming negative impacts to jobs and electricity costs. []

On the other hand, a study update by Clean Energy Group’s Clean Air Policy Initiative, a coalition of electric companies dedicated to responsible energy, concludes, “The flexible nature of EPA’s regulations, the readiness reported by leaders of many of the companies owning affected coal plants ... indicate we can modernize and clean the nation’s electric fleet to enhance public health while maintaining electric system reliability.” [

With each new/revised rule, EPA is gradually forcing the coal industry to internalize the health and environmental costs that have traditionally fallen to the public. As these costs add up, alternative energy sources will become ever more attractive and eventually coal will price itself out of the market. EPA’s current flurry of activity gets us going down that path, but it will clearly need public support to prevail. To submit supportive comments on the EPA’s regulations or to learn more visit:    n


Janice Meier is an active member of the Sierra Club, helping with the Maryland Chapter’s energy team and working with the Sierra Club’s Federal and International Climate Campaign.  Janice travelled as part of the Sierra Club’s delegation to the 2010 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Conference in Cancun, Mexico.


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