The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed the first-ever national standards for mercury, arsenic and other toxic air pollution from power plants. The new power plant mercury and air toxics standards would require many power plants to install pollution control technologies to cut emissions of mercury, arsenic, chromium, nickel and acid gases.

The controls are expected prevent as many as 17,000 premature deaths and 11,000 heart attacks a year, according to the EPA. The EPA says the new standards would also provide particular health benefits for children, preventing 120,000 cases of childhood asthma symptoms and about 11,000 fewer cases of acute bronchitis among children each year. On the other hand, opponents from industry say the proposed standards would force many older plants to shut down and cost Americans jobs at a time of already-high unemployment. The EPA counters this sentiment, noting that the standards would provide employment for thousands by supporting 31,000 short-term construction jobs and 9,000 long-term utility jobs.

Power plants are the largest remaining source of several toxic air pollutants – responsible for half of mercury and more than half of acid gas emissions in the United States. In the power sector alone, the EPA says coal-fired power plants are responsible for 99 percent of mercury emissions. Currently, more than half of all coal-fired power plants already deploy the widely available pollution control technologies that allow them to meet the requirements of the proposed standards. Once final, these standards will ensure the remaining coal-fired plants, roughly 44 percent, take similar steps to decrease dangerous pollutants.

The proposed rule provides up to 4 years for facilities to meet the standards and, once fully implemented, will prevent 91 percent of mercury in coal from being released into the air.

More than 20 years ago, the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments mandated that EPA require control of toxic air pollutants including mercury. Since then, the EPA says while it has taken action to reduce mercury emissions from many high-emitting sources, there remains no national standard for mercury emissions from power plants. Today’s announcement is long awaited, coming 11 years after EPA announced it would set such limits for power plants and following a February 2008 court decision that struck down the previous administration”s mercury rule. In October 2009, EPA entered into a consent decree that required a proposal to be signed by March 16, 2011, and a final rule to be completed by November 2011.

The EPA estimates that for every dollar spent to reduce pollution from power plants, the American public and American businesses will see up to $13 in health and economic benefits. The total health and economic benefits of this standard are estimated to be as much as $140 billion annually.

As part of the public comment process, the EPA will also hold public hearings on this proposed rule. For more information, visit www.epa.gov/airquality/powerplanttoxics/.