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New pollution rules will have major impact on Missouri, Illinois power plants

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 22, 2011 -WASHINGTON - Landmark federal standards issued Wednesday to limit mercury and other toxic pollutants are likely to have a major impact on the coal-fired power plants in Missouri and Illinois -- requiring extensive and expensive retrofitting, officials said.

"This rule will have some effect on virtually all of our units in Missouri and Illinois," said Mike Menne, vice president of environmental services for Ameren Corp. But he added that the utility "will not be closing its plants as a result of this rule" in Missouri.

Menne said in an interview that the new rule, known as the "utility MACT" standard, will have wide impact "because it requires controls for mercury and particulates and acid gases on virtually every unit in the country." In Missouri and Illinois, he said, "we are not in compliance with this particular rule at any of our facilities." The cost of compliance in Missouri is likely to exceed $200 million over three to five years, he said.

The new Mercury and Air Toxics Standards represent the first national standards that aim to reduce power plant emissions of mercury and toxic air pollution like arsenic, acid gas, nickel, selenium and cyanide. Environmental Protection Agency administrator Lisa Jackson said they will "protect millions of families and children from harmful and costly air pollution and provide the American people with health benefits that far outweigh the costs."

But those costs will be considerable -- an estimated $9.6 billion a year when the standards go into effect. Normally, power plants would be required to comply with the standards within three years, but the new rule would allow states such as Missouri to request extensions of up to two more years for their utility firms to comply fully.

About half of the 1,300 coal- and oil-fired units nationwide still lack modern pollution controls, according to the EPA. While the Clean Air Act of 1990 allowed the EPA to regulate such emissions, many years of lawsuits and other delays have allowed many power plants to keep operating under the old standards.

Missouri is among the states likely to be most affected because it has many coal-fired plants that currently are not subject to state-defined limits on mercury emissions. Illinois is among the states that already have mercury standards in place.

Mercury pollutants are considered among the most serious risks to health, as the chemical tends to gather in watersheds after being emitted from power plants. The EPA estimates that the new safeguards will prevent as many as 11,000 premature deaths and 4,700 heart attacks a year. Also, particulate standards are estimated to help prevent about 130,000 cases of childhood asthma symptoms and about 6,300 fewer cases of acute bronchitis among children each year.

According to a report issued in January by Environment Missouri, Missouri ranked 11th-highest among the state in in mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants in 2009. Illinois ranked seventh. That year, Ameren's Labadie plant in Franklin County ranked as the 15th-highest mercury emitter among the 450 coal-fired plants across the country.

Eileen Claussen, president of the nonprofit Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, called the new EPA standards "an important step in protecting public health." While the cost of implementing the regulations is likely to be "nearly $10 billion a year," Claussen said in a statement that "these investments will pay important dividends by reducing health costs by $37 billion to $90 billion in 2016 alone."

Start of update: John Hickey, director of the Missouri Sierra Club, said in a statement that "the Sierra Club applauds the president and his administration for their courage and resolve in protecting American families -- particularly women and children -- from this dangerous toxin and for standing up to polluters' attempts to weaken this life-saving protection."

Hickey added: "Each year, more than 300,000 American babies are born exposed to dangerous levels of mercury. Now, after decades of delay, we have the first-ever nationwide protections against this toxic pollutant. These strong, sensible safeguards will slash mercury pollution from power plants by more than 90 percent and improve the air quality for millions of Americans in Missouri and across the country." End of update

Compliance May Cost $200 Million

While Ameren officials say it is too early to speculate about the impact of the new standards on electricity rates, the cost of meeting the new standards will be high.

Menne estimated the cost of retrofitting to meet the MACT standard and other recent emissions rules "in the couple hundred million dollar range for controls specifically for this rule for our plants in Missouri" over three to five years.

Because those expenses will increase the costs of producing electricity, "it would put upward pressure on rates," he said. However, Ameren is looking at possible alternatives to comply with the new rules. "I can't say specifically that this will result in rate increases," Menne said, "but it is certainly going to contribute to that possibility."

Among the Missouri power plants needing major retrofitting is the four-unit Meramec coal-fired plant in St. Louis County. "We would have to probably enhance our precipitators there to collect more particulates and we'll also have to inject activated carbon into the gas stream to collect the mercury," Menne said. "We'll probably have to do quite a bit of that at our Meramec plant."

Ameren has four coal-fired power plants in Missouri, with 12 units. In Illinois, the utility operates five coal-fired plants, with 14 units. While Missouri has no state law controlling mercury emissions, Ameren's Illinois plants "have had to meet [state] mercury control requirements in last few years," he said.

Bringing coal-fired plants into compliance can involve scrubbers and particulate control devices, which catch particles as they rise through smokestacks.

"Scrubbers can go a long way toward compliance with this rule," Menne said. "At the Portage des Sioux plant in Missouri and three power plants in Illinois we do, or will, have scrubbers on all of those units. That does remove a lot of the mercury and also would get us in compliance" with the acid-gas and particulate standards.

But he added that scrubbers "are very expensive. Alternatively, we will have to enhance our particulate control devices -- the precipitators which collect the particles and soot that goes up the [smoke] stack."

Menne added: "We have a lot of different environmental rules that are hitting us sequentially here."

Congressional Republicans Say Rule Will Hike Rates

Leaders of the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee expressed concern Wednesday about the new standards' economic impact. The committee has pressured the EPA to delay the utility MACT rules because of their impact on electricity prices.

"Analyses predict EPA's rules will force the premature retirement of power plants that are needed to provide affordable, reliable power to consumers and our growing economy," said the committee's chairman, Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich. "Other plants will require multi-million dollar retrofits that will result in higher electricity bills."

Upton added that he is "concerned the administration decided to issue this rule without a comprehensive analysis assessing how it will affect jobs and the price and reliability of electricity. Under the rules, parts of the country face very real threats of rolling brownouts and blackouts."

Start of update: But some Democrats on Capitol Hill defended the new standards, arguing that they will protect public health and that the retrofitting is likely to create thousands of jobs.

"Power plants are not only the nation's largest source of dangerous mercury emissions, but they also pollute the air we breathe with lead, arsenic, chromium and cyanide," said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

In a statement, Boxer said the science and methodology used to determine the benefits of the new standards "have been extensively peer reviewed by EPA's independent Science Advisory Board and the National Academies of Science."

She also said the EPA "estimates that this clean air rule will also provide up to 46,000 construction jobs and 8,000 long-term jobs in the utility industry. EPA's action today will generate jobs and protect the health and safety of families across the country." End of update.

Last summer, the House approved a measure calling for more time for implementation of the MACT rule until there is an analysis of its impact on jobs, global competitiveness and energy security. A similar provision was in the House version of the payroll tax extension bill, and a Senate version was included in a Senate payroll bill sponsored this month by Sens. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Susan Collins, R-Me.

In a memorandum released Wednesday by the White House, President Barack Obama said the new standards "will promote the transition to a cleaner and more efficient U.S. electric power system." He told the EPA to make sure that implementing the rule should "proceed in a cost-effective manner that ensures electric reliability."

An Associated Press survey of 55 power producers nationwide found that more than 32 mostly coal-fired power plants in a dozen states would be retired because of the regulation, in combination with another rule aimed at reducing pollution downwind from power plants. Most of those plants were four to six decades old.

Rob Koenig is an award-winning journalist and author. He worked at the STL Beacon until 2013.

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