EPA releases new air-pollution standards


Written by News Service of Florida

December 21, 2011


The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday released controversial new air-pollution standards that could force expensive upgrades at some Florida power plants --- but have been long-sought by environmental and health advocates.

The standards will require hundreds of coal-fired power plants across the country to make improvements to curb emissions of mercury and other pollutants such as arsenic and nickel.

Progress Energy Florida and Gulf Power Co. have repeatedly raised concerns about the standards in recent months, though both said Wednesday they needed to review details of the final standards to gauge their impact.

"By the EPA’s own estimate, this rule is the most expensive in its history and it has the potential to have significant impacts on consumers,'' Bill Johnson, president and chief executive officer of Progress Energy, the parent of the Florida subsidiary. "We will work collaboratively with our state regulators to develop implementation strategies that will ensure compliance in the most cost-effective way for our customers and that protect the reliability of our system.''

But EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said during a news conference at a Washington children's hospital that the health benefits of the standards will "far outweigh" the compliance costs for utilities. Mercury, for example, can cause neurological damage in children.

"In and of itself, this is a great victory for public health, especially for the health of our children,'' Jackson said.

The standards will have varying impacts on electric utilities, which the EPA says generally will have four years to comply. For example, Tampa Electric Co. spokeswoman Cherie Jacobs said the utility has spent about $1.2 billion during the past decade on power-plant upgrades and has reduced mercury emissions by about 90 percent.

"Because of those investments, the company is well-positioned to comply with the EPA's new rule within the proposed timeline,'' Jacobs said in an e-mail.

Similarly, Florida Power & Light, the state's largest utility, relies heavily on natural gas to fuel plants. The company has said it is well-positioned to comply with the regulations.

The standards stem, at least in part, from a 2000 determination by the EPA that steps should be taken to control mercury emissions from power plants. But as the EPA has worked to finalize the standards in recent months, the agency has drawn criticism from some utilities and Republicans.

In October, Florida Republican Attorney General Pam Bondi joined 24 other states in calling for EPA to delay implementation of the standards.

"We cannot allow Floridians, many of whom are already suffering financial hardships, to bear the brunt of costly federal regulations,'' Bondi said at the time.

Before the release Wednesday, the EPA made changes to earlier proposals for the standards. Sandy Sims, a spokeswoman for Pensacola-based Gulf Power, said the company will review the final version and look at options for complying.

"Our main concern is how best to continue to provide reliable, affordable and environmentally responsible electricity to our customers,'' she said in an e-mail.

But Kirk Fordham, chief executive officer of the Everglades Foundation, praised the standards.

"We applaud the Obama administration for issuing this rule,'' Fordham said. "It's a long time coming. Any global efforts to reduce methylmercury benefits Florida, not just the Everglades but throughout the state.''