The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has agreed to adopt rules reducing toxic air pollution from the nation’s coal- and oil-burning power plants, by November 2011, according to a settlement agreement reached in a federal lawsuit brought against the agency by a coalition of public health and environmental groups.
The settlement has been lodged in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia. Attorneys at Earthjustice, Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Clean Air Task Force, Natural Resources Defense Council, Southern Environmental Law Center, and Waterkeeper Alliance filed the lawsuit last December on behalf of their organizations and 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.
The lawsuit was based on EPA’s failure to meet the Clean Air Act’s deadline for issuing regulations controlling toxic air pollution from power plants.
“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 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.”
Children and women of childbearing age are at risk when power plants emit the levels of mercury they are emitting today – all 50 states, and one US territory, have declared fish advisories warning about mercury contamination.
“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.
“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.”
“Cleaning up dirty coal-burning power plants is the best way to make the air healthy for the American people,” said John Walke, senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “This rule will drive deep cuts not just in mercury pollution, but dangerous soot pollution that leads to asthma, bronchitis, heart attacks and strokes.”
Jon Mueller of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation pointed out the significant implications of this settlement for the Bay: “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 toward achieving that goal.”
Under the Clean Air Act, EPA was required to control power plants’ toxic air emissions by December 2002. Instead the Bush administration asked Congress to eliminate that requirement. Unable to win Congressional support for that request, the Bush EPA tried to declare that the required pollution controls were simply not necessary or appropriate. The federal appeals court in D.C. 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, the environmental and public health groups above filed a lawsuit to compel EPA to issue its long overdue toxic air regulations. That lawsuit was resolved with the consent decree committing EPA to enforceable schedules for proposing and adopting the required rules.
Coal-burning power plants are the nation’s largest unregulated source of mercury pollution, and also emit enormous quantities of lead, arsenic and other hazardous chemicals. Some 1,300 coal-fired units at existing power plants spew at least 48 tons of mercury, alone, into the air each year.
Significant human health and adverse effects on wildlife are associated with these emissions. For example, much of the mercury and other metals in power plant plumes fall out within 100 miles of the source, and mercury accumulates up the food chain in fish and in the animals that consume it. 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, loss of IQ, learning disabilities and developmental problems.