Nuclear power plant safety has dominated the headlines in the past week, but there has also been plenty of talk about the more conventional types of power plants in the United States — meaning coal, oil and natural gas.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has made another attempt to curtail harmful emissions and toxins from these types of power plants. The EPA’s proposal would limit toxic emissions of air pollutants from coal- and oil-fired plants. The limitations would specifically be placed on mercury, arsenic and a few other cancer-causing toxins.

If these limitations become a reality, they would be the first national standards implemented for power plants under the Clean Air Act since it became law in 1990. The EPA proposal says any new coal-fired plants to adhere to the mercury standards, while oil-fired plants would have a four-year grace period to comply.

One trade publication says the industries have the technology to operate cleaner facilities. “Even though economical technology for controlling toxic air pollution has already been developed and is being employed in newer facilities, power plants remain the largest air polluters in the U.S.," says the report.

According to the EPA, reigning in toxic emissions from fossil fuel power plants would make a significant difference in reducing the related health costs, including nervous system damage, cognitive impairment in children, premature deaths and heart attacks. “[These power plants] are responsible for 50 percent of mercury emissions, over 50 percent of acid gas emissions, and about 25 percent of toxic metal emissions in the U.S.,” says the agency.

The agency also says success is achievable. Simply by installing existing simple technologies like scrubbers, the agency says 91 percent of mercury released into the air from coal-burning power plants could be prevented.

But not everyone is in agreement about next steps. Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), who is also a surgeon, is against the plan. “I think the EPA is overstepping what it should be doing in terms of impacting Americans’ ability to compete globally.”

Barrasso, and other like-minded lawmakers on Capitol Hill, complain that the fossil fuel industry will hand the cost of the policy over to consumers. The EPA doesn’t argue with that claim. The agency predicts that keeping these substances out of the air could cost consumers between $3 and $4 more per month on their energy bills. Over a year, that’s less than the average co-payment for one doctor’s visit. The agency says implementing cleaner practices for power plants would create thousands of jobs while creating health savings of more than $140 billion over the next five years.

All in all, it seems like this could be fair: pay a few extra dollars a month and get a healthier America. Still, many say the political times just aren’t right for a policy like this to become law. 

The politics of healthier power plants
A new EPA proposal attempts to limit toxic emissions of air pollutants from coal and oil-fired power plants.