Proposed Rule for Power Plant Toxics Due March 16

March 2, 2011

By March 16, 2011, the EPA power-plant mercury rule that sparked battles during the Bush administration should be back in the news. Half a dozen years after EPA initially thought it had finalized a rule regulating mercury emissions from coal- and oil-burning electric power plants, the agency is facing a court-ordered deadline March 16 to release a new proposed rule. The latest attempt is in response to court decisions that found the Bush-era efforts invalid.

The proposed rule will address coal- and oil-fired power plants, and likely will cover many, if not all, of about 80 toxics known to be emitted by the plants. Based on published data, that list includes mercury, lead, and many other metals, volatile organic compounds, ammonia, hydrochloric acid, hydrogen fluoride, dioxins, and polycyclic aromatic compounds. The consent decree that established the March 16 release date also mandates that a final rule be published by Nov. 16, 2011 (nine years later than the deadline dictated by the Clean Air Act).

EPA is developing a new Web site for this issue, and the agency isn't yet disclosing its URL, but it should be linked to the following site.

Basic information on the multi-year process to date and the proposed rule is available at:

Power plants are one of the main sources of numerous toxic emissions. Prior to the release of the proposed rule, there are several tools you can use to begin to get a handle on the power plants and their emissions in your audience area. Along with the substances classified as hazardous air pollutants, emissions include criteria air pollutants such as carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, sulfur oxides, and fine particulates.

For an initial overview of plants and their emissions, one good choice is EPA's Where You Live site. There you can get Google Earth maps that quickly indicate plants in the geographic area you're interested in. You can click on each plant icon and get a summary of a few of each plant's emissions, and also get context on how emission quantities for those substances compare with those of other plants in that geographic area.

  • Where You Live (select geographic area, electric generating units, particulate matter, and zero for the minimum amount; data is for 2005, so is somewhat outdated; not all pollutants and plant information show up on the Google Earth option, so for more information select the html option).

EPA has an older tool, based on 2002 data, that has the advantage of providing a quick graphic image of the total magnitude of a facility's emissions. It also allows you to fine-tune your geographic area, such as by EPA region, or particular clusters of counties. You might want to crosscheck it if you're trying to prioritize your coverage.

  • EPA Air Data, Select Geographic Area (select geographic area; under criteria air pollutants and maps, select facility emissions; under "pollutant emitted," select "total of these pollutants," and 2002; a power plant will often be the largest colored circle; run the mouse over it to get some information on amount of each pollutant emitted).

Not all emitted toxics are covered by either of these data sources. For a more comprehensive list, and more current data, check the Toxics Release Inventory once you know the state and/or counties you want to focus on. One user-friendly version is:

  • Right-to-Know Network (select geographic area; click on "get list of facilities"; click on each power plant; results are provided in a number of ways regarding level of detail, media to which emitted, etc.).

The legal action that resulted in the consent decree was initiated and supported by numerous advocacy groups that can be a source of information for your coverage, including the Clean Air Task Force, Earthjustice, Natural Resources Defense Council, Waterkeeper Alliance, Southern Environmental Law Center, Chesapeake Bay Foundation, American Nurses Association, Conservation Law Foundation, Environment America, Environmental Defense Fund, Izaak Walton League of America, Natural Resources Council of Maine, Ohio Environmental Council, Physicians for Social Responsibility, and Sierra Club.

The power plants are owned and operated by scores of companies, whose names will show up in the data sources mentioned above.

Another primary angle to pursue is the extent to which the current Congressional efforts to restrict EPA's authority may affect the proposed rule, the final rule, any changes in timing for either rule, and efforts by companies to challenge or delay the rules or a company's efforts to implement pollution control measures.