WASHINGTON — Clean up or shut down.
That's the decision facing hundreds of the nation's oldest and dirtiest power plants under an Environmental Protection Agency rule announced Wednesday that will force plants to control mercury and other toxic pollutants for the first time.
The long overdue national standards rein in the largest remaining source of uncontrolled toxic pollution in the U.S. — the emissions from the nation's coal- and oil-fired power plants, which have been allowed to run for decades without addressing their full environmental and public health costs.
The impact of the ruling will be greatest in the Midwest and in the coal belt — Kentucky, West Virginia and Virginia — where dozens of units likely will be mothballed, according to an Associated Press survey. The majority of facilities will continue to run, and find ways to reduce pollution.
About half of the 1,200 coal- and oil-fired units nationwide still lack modern pollution controls, despite the EPA in 1990 getting the authority from Congress to control toxic air pollution from power plant smokestacks. A decade later, in 2000, the agency concluded it was necessary to clamp down on the emissions to protect public health.
At a news conference Wednesday at Children's National Medical Center in Washington, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said the regulation was the Obama administration's "biggest clean air action yet", trumping a landmark agreement to double fuel economy standards for vehicles and another rule that will reduce emissions from power plants that foul the air in states downwind.
The administration was under court order to issue a new rule, after a court threw out an attempt by the Bush administration to exempt power plants from toxic air pollution controls.
"Before this rule, there were no national standards limiting the amount of mercury, arsenic, chromium, nickel and acid gases that power plants across the country could release into the air that we breathe," said Jackson, listing the contaminants linked to cancer, IQ loss, heart disease and lung disease that are covered by the rule, and that also pollute lakes, streams and fish.
In a video released Wednesday afternoon, President Barack Obama said the decades of delays caused by special interest groups that resulted in standards never being put into place for power plants "was wrong."
"Today, my administration is saying, 'Enough'," he said.
When fully implemented in 2016, the standards will slash mercury pollution from burning coal by 90 percent, lung-damaging acid gases by 88 percent and soot-producing sulfur dioxide by 41 percent.
Power plant operators will have to choose between installing pollution control equipment, switching to cleaner-burning natural gas, or shutting down the plant. None of those choices come cheap — the EPA estimates the rule will cost $9.6 billion annually, making it one of the most expensive the agency has ever issued.
Some power producers intensely lobbied the Obama administration to weaken the rule and to delay it, and Republicans in Congress passed legislation to do so, saying it would threaten jobs and the reliability of the power grid, and raise electricity prices.
To ease those concerns, the administration will encourage states to make "broadly available" an additional fourth year to comply with the rule, as allowed by the law. Case-by-case extensions could also be granted to address local reliability issues, according to a presidential memorandum sent Wednesday to Jackson.
In the memorandum, Obama directs the EPA to ensure that implementation of the rule "proceed in a cost-effective manner that ensures electric reliability."
Environmentalists said Wednesday that the added flexibility did not jeopardize the public health benefits of the regulation.
"After more than two decades of delay, dirty coal-fired power plants are going to be cleaned up in short order," said Frank O'Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch, who said the EPA "bent over backwards" to accommodate concerns about reliability.