Stronger Standards, Better Monitoring Will Protect Communities from Toxic Pollution

(This post was co-authored by EDF analyst Jolie Villegas)

The Environmental Protection Agency’s recent updates of the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards include several steps that provide substantial public health benefits by reducing toxic air pollution from coal plants.

In our last blog post we wrote about one of those steps – closing the “lignite loophole” that allows power plants that burn lignite coal to avoid commonsense pollution limits that protect people’s health and safety.

There’s a second step that EPA took in updating the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards – requiring coal-fired power plants to use a Continuous Emissions Monitoring System so that people and communities are protected from dangerous pollution 365 days a year.

And as a third step to protect communities from harmful exposures, the updated Mercury and Air Toxics Standards meaningfully strengthen limits for hazardous metal emissions.

We need year-round protection from toxic pollution 

In addition to regulating mercury pollution, the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards also protect people from other hazardous substances that are emitted by power plants when they burn coal – including arsenic; lead; and benzene, chromium and nickel, which cause cancer.

Right now, coal-fired power plants can comply with our national pollution standards for these other hazardous substances by testing their emissions on only four days per year. But this “quarterly stack testing” means plants can potentially spew high levels of toxic pollution – well over the legal limit – on the other 361 days of the year.

Requiring the use of a Continuous Emissions Monitoring System deters coal plants from artificially lowering pollution levels on a test day, or from turning off pollution controls when testing isn’t occurring.

Continuous Emissions Monitoring Systems also provide coal-fired power plants with regular, real-time data that allows them to improve their operations. The systems can alert operators immediately when pollution controls are not working as expected, which allows operators to make immediate adjustments to address malfunctioning equipment. That means nearby communities will get timely relief from air pollution that could otherwise go undetected for months.

Continuous Emissions Monitoring Systems are widely available and cost-effective

EPA analysis finds that Continuous Emissions Monitoring Systems are more cost-effective than quarterly stack testing, and that the cost of installation and equipment for a Continuous Emissions Monitoring System has fallen by almost 50% since the agency’s first estimate in 2012.

Because Continuous Emissions Monitoring Systems are the most affordable option, using them could also decrease electricity costs and provide financial benefits to ratepayers – in addition to the health benefits from reduced exposure to toxic pollution.

Not only is the technology cost-effective, it can also be rapidly deployed. Andover Technology Partners found that Continuous Emissions Monitoring Systems can be installed in mere months.

Reducing toxic metal pollution

EPA’s updated Mercury and Air Toxics Standards also strengthen the threshold for several toxic metals that are among the most dangerous substances emitted by coal plants. They include three known human carcinogens and five probable carcinogens. Cadmium, for example, is associated with several types of cancer and has adverse effects on brain development, the lungs, liver, and kidneys. Exposure to arsenic can lead to lung disease, adverse birth outcomes, skin and liver damage, and contribute to the development of type 2 diabetes. Lead exposure is linked to lung inflammation, increased severity of asthma, impacts to children’s mental functioning, and adverse effects on the liver and kidneys.

The updated Mercury and Air Toxics Standards requires lagging coal plants to install state-of-the-art pollution control equipment for those pollutants. While 93% of units are already complying with the lower pollution limits, a few coal plants have persistently refused to install modern pollution controls. This means that certain communities are exposed to unacceptably high levels of carcinogenic pollution. The standards push the few holdouts to finally clean up their act.

Most of the small number of plants that are not already complying with the revised limits will be able to meet the new standards through simple actions such as running more efficiently, optimizing already-installed emissions controls, and making relatively inexpensive upgrades to existing equipment. Andover Technology Partners estimates that most of these upgrades can be finished in a matter of months to well under a year.

Protecting our communities

Communities near coal plants are disproportionately made up of people of color and low-income communities, exposing these groups to elevated levels of toxic pollution. In a 2016 analysis, the NAACP ranked coal plants by environmental justice performance scores and found that, for the worst 12 plants, 76% of nearby residents were people of color. The updated Mercury and Air Toxics Standards will provide significant health gains for these – and all – communities.

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