Unveiling a historic rule, the Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday announced the first national requirement for the nation’s coal-fired power plants to reduce emissions of mercury, arsenic, cyanide and other toxic pollutants. The landmark ruling took more than 20 years for the EPA to finish. Under the Clean Air Act, many other sources of air pollution have been cleaned up, but power plants were so important to the economy that they long had a pass.
About 60 percent of the nation’s plants, however, already comply with the new requirement because of state rules. The remaining 40 percent are a major source of pollution, producing more than half the mercury emissions in the country, the EPA said. The ruling will require coal-fired power plants to add pollution-control equipment or close. Many plants already scheduled to close are 50 years or older. EPA estimated that the new requirement will prevent as many as 11,000 deaths, 4,700 heart attacks and 130,000 cases of childhood asthma each year. “This is a great victory for public health, especially for the health of our children,” EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said in an announcement ceremony at the Children’s National Medical Center. Mercury harms the nervous systems of fetuses and young children, reducing their ability to think and learn as they grow up. Other toxic pollutants from the plants have been linked to cancer and other diseases. Soot, or particle pollution, can cause heart and lung diseases.