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EPA proposes new mercury standards for power plants

By Eric Marrapodi, CNN
EPA administrator Lisa Jackson signed new mercury standards guidelines Thursday in Washington as second-graders watched.
EPA administrator Lisa Jackson signed new mercury standards guidelines Thursday in Washington as second-graders watched.
  • Many utilities would have to install new pollution controls
  • Thousands of deaths expected to be prevented
  • EPA rules will be final by November
  • Companies would have up to 4 years to comply

Washington (CNN) -- The Environmental Protection Agency proposed new national guidelines on Wednesday for mercury and air toxics released from power plants.

The move came in response to a court-ordered deadline and would require many power plants to install pollution control technologies.

"Today we're taking an important step forward in EPA's efforts to safeguard the health of millions of Americans," EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said at a press conference to sign the new order.

"Under the Clean Air Act these standards will require American power plants to put in place proven and widely available pollution technologies to control and cut harmful emissions like mercury, arsenic, chromium, nickel and acid gases," Jackson said.

Jackson said the new standards would "prevent 91% of mercury in coal from being released in the air."

The D.C. Court of Appeals ordered the EPA to make the rules final by November. Companies have three years to comply, but some could get a one-year extension if the technology cannot be installed in time.

The Power Plant Mercury and Air Toxics Standards are expected to have broad health benefits, according to the EPA. The pollution control methods are expected to prevent 17,000 premature deaths and 11,000 heart attacks. The EPA said it would also help eliminate 10,000 cases of childhood asthma.

The announcement was hailed by the American Lung Association and several groups of doctors who spoke at the press event.

A group of second-graders from Amidon-Bowen Elementary School in Washington, D.C., joined EPA Administration Lisa Jackson as she signed the new guidelines.

Dr. Marian Burton, the president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, told the students, "I think you already know this rule is for you and for all the children in the America who will follow you.

"Dirty air makes people sick. That's the long and short of it," Burton continued. "If you think it's expensive to put a scrubber on a smokestack you should see how much it costs to treat a preventable birth defect."

Jackson said the instillation and maintenance of the pollution controls would provide jobs as well as health benefits. "These are good labor-intensive jobs that cannot be shipped overseas," she said.

Jackson emphasized these new measures would come at a financial cost for utility companies but said it would level the playing field for utility companies once they are all operating from the same clean air standard. Consumers will see a bump in their bills while utility companies put the new technology in place, she said.

"We estimate impact on utility bills that are pretty minor, three to four dollars a month," Jackson said. Those costs to companies and consumers she said would be far outweighed by the benefits.