US EPA Regulations on Mercury Emissions Affect Coal-Generated Electricity in Illinois and Nationwide

When the US Environmental Protection Agency issued new rules on mercury emissions from power plants in late December, it marked a new regulatory era for the American energy industry.

New rules unveiled [in December] by the Obama administration will crack down on coal plants that still aren’t equipped to scrub out the toxic metal, a change delayed by more than two decades of legal and political wrangling in Washington.

The rules give 600 power plants nationwide up to four years to cut mercury emissions. About 60 percent already comply, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Power companies that fail to meet the mercury standard fought to delay or kill the rules, arguing they will force dozens of older plants to close and make the nation’s electrical grid less reliable. But supporters note that recent power auctions guarantee there will be enough electricity to meet demand for years after the rule takes effect, even if companies decide it would be cheaper to shutter some plants rather than clean them up.

“This is a huge victory for public health,” said Mary Gade, a Chicago lawyer who served as President George W. Bush’s regional EPA administrator. “Other sources have been complying for years, and so have many coal plants. There’s no reason why others can’t do the same thing.”

Uncontrolled for years, mercury pollution is so pervasive that every state advises people, especially women of childbearing age and young children, to avoid or limit eating certain types of fish. The EPA estimates that 410,000 babies are born each year at risk for mercury poisoning because of high levels in their mothers’ bodies.

Coal-fired power plants are the biggest man-made source of the toxic metal, one of the last kinds of pollution to be targeted for limits under the federal Clean Air Act. The new rule also imposes more stringent limits on lung- and heart-damaging soot and other “air toxics,” including arsenic and chromium.

Abundant Illinois coal and the relatively cheap and convenient (if dirty) energy it produces fueled the growth and operations of the Chicago and St. Louis metropolitan areas beginning in the nineteenth century.  Today’s concerns about greenhouse gas emissions recall concerns about smoke polluting local atmospheres a century ago.  Coal burning could turn urban skies black at noon, and fears for public health lead to unsuccessful smoke control measures for decades.  In the 1920s, St. Louis engineers calculated that coal smoke deposited about nine hundred tons of solids per square mile in the city, and that the annual cost of cleaning the damage from smoke was about $15 million.  Doctors worried about respiratory diseases caused or aggravated by the smoke.

As historians Joel Tarr and Roosevelt Professor Carl Zimring discussed in their chapter “The Struggle for Smoke Control in St. Louis: Achievement and Emulation” from Andrew Hurley’s book Common Fields: An Environmental History of St. Louis, St. Louis finally developed an effective smoke control policy in 1940.  The policy successfully controlled  the quality of the coal being burned in St. Louis furnaces, thus reducing particulate matter that could be sent airborne.  (It also produced massive increases in the price of coal purchased in St. Louis, which is why labor unions and many working-class citizens opposed the ordinance.)  Measurement of hours of “thick” smoke found in the skies above St. Louis declined by 83.6 percent in the first winter after the ordinance was passed.  The St. Louis smoke control ordinance became a model that dozens of other cities in the United States and worldwide adopted, reducing the effects of coal on the environment.

As we know today, such developments did not eliminate coal’s environmental problems.  Use of coal in electrical generation still produces pollution, and still remains a contributor to the greenhouse gases that affect climate change.  Coal-burning power plants in the Chicago area, including the Fisk and Crawford plants in the city and the State Line plant in northwestern Indiana are primed to close in the next few years because of their role in local pollution. The uses and consequences of relying upon coal to produce energy are examined in several Roosevelt courses, including SUST 210 The Sustainable Future (offered at Roosevelt’s downtown campus and online in Spring 2012), SUST 310 Energy and Climate Change (offered online in Spring 2012), and SUST 320 Sprawl, Transportation, and Planning (offered online in Spring 2012).  For more information on these or any other of our courses, please visit our Sustainability Studies website, call 1-877-277-5978 (1-877-APPLY RU) or email applyRU@roosevelt.edu.

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