WASHINGTON — The Environmental Protection Agency will put controls on the emissions of hazardous pollutants such as mercury from coal-fired power plants for the first time by November 2011, according to an agreement announced Friday to settle a lawsuit against the agency.
Many other polluters were forced to reduce emissions of toxic material such as mercury, arsenic and lead after the Clean Air Act was strengthened in 1990. But power plants, the largest source of mercury pollution, aren't subject to nationwide rules.
The tougher rules will clean up more than just heavy metals because some kinds of pollution controls — scrubbers, for example — also remove other pollutants, such as soot.
Controlling mercury is significant because the pollutant enters the food chain and ends up in fish. Children, including those who were exposed to mercury before birth, are especially at risk of developmental and learning disabilities. Adults also can experience health problems from eating too much contaminated fish.
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Although the EPA has issued guidelines about eating fish, it hasn't required power plants to reduce toxic emissions. The Clinton administration, before leaving office, declared that plants should be subject to controls under the Clean Air Act, but the Bush administration reversed that decision. Instead, it set up a cap-and-trade system, which imposed limits on emissions and established a system to trade pollution allowances.
In February 2008, a federal appeals court overturned that approach and ordered the EPA to regulate toxic air pollutants from power plants. Then the American Nurses Association and environmental groups sued to compel the EPA to issue the regulations.
"Nurses see firsthand the negative effects the pollutants have on the patients they serve," said Alice Bodley, general counsel for the nurses association. "It's a long overdue but welcome commitment from EPA. Once finalized, these regulations should provide a higher level of protection for hundreds of thousands of people, especially young people."
The settlement requires the EPA to adopt the rules by November 2011.
"Addressing hazardous air-pollutant emissions from utilities is a high priority for EPA," the agency said in a statement Friday.