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Coal At The Crossroads: Mercury Rises on Coal Costs

Sheldon Station coal fired power plant produces 140 pounds of mercury per year.
Sheldon Station coal fired power plant produces 140 pounds of mercury per year.

Bluestem Lake near Lincoln, Nebraska is five miles north of a coal-fired power plant. It is also one of 85 bodies of water in the state under a consumption advisory because of fish found to have elevated levels of mercury in their tissues. Half of the airborne mercury pollution in the US comes from coal-fired power plants. After years of study and debate, the EPA is planning to announce new limits on mercury from coal plants in November. Ken Winston of the Nebraska Sierra Club believes the agency is doing the right thing.

“When you burn coal, mercury goes up into the atmosphere,” Winston said. “It comes down in the form of rain. Fish eat it. People eat the fish. It can be very damaging and have long term negative impact on the development of children. So it’s something we need to get out of the environment as much as possible.”

The EPA says its proposed new mercury rules could reduce emissions across the country by 91%. Meanwhile, utilities are scrambling to meet other new federal regulations and industry groups are asking the government to slow down. The Nebraska Public Power District operates two coal plants. Under the proposed mercury rule Environmental Manager, Joe Citta, says the utility will need to install equipment that uses activated carbon in order to remove even more mercury than control systems already in place.
coal plant

Sheldon Station coal fired power plant produces 140 pounds of mercury per year.

“The system is several million dollars,” Citta said. “But what really makes it expensive is the operating cost because activated carbon is rather pricey.”

NPPD will spend 35 million dollars to meet another new regulation reducing smog-forming pollutants that cross state lines. That rule, the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule (CSAPR), was announced in July and takes effect in January. Citta says it requires more cuts than many in the industry expected for pollutants like nitrogen oxides (NOx) and sulfur dioxide (SO2).

“This caught our state, many other states also,” Citta said. When the final rule came out they had reduced those by an additional 40%. Then with only 6 months to comply…We felt the proposed rule was manageable. We would have had to do some things. But they were certainly more achievable than this additional 40% reduction.”

Nebraska utilities feeling rushed by regulation are hoping to get some extra time. The Nebraska Attorney General’s office is working on a lawsuit against the interstate smog rule that a spokesperson says would protect utilities and consumers from costly federal overreach. A bill in the House of Representatives could slow things down by commissioning a study on the economic impact of the EPA’s emissions agenda. Steve Gates of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Energy says it is a reaction to a lot of regulation in a short period of time.

“In a state like Nebraska where 65% of our electricity comes from coal, something is going to happen and the guess is electricity prices go up immediately,” Gates said. “You know, there’s just a lot of economic implications that really should be looked at before we jump into something that no one knows the outcome economically.”

Nebraska rails are a major thoroughfare from Wyoming to power plants in the Midwest and southern Plains. Gates says the state’s economic ties to coal show the advantage of having easy access to inexpensive energy.

“We’re fortunate enough to be in the top ten lowest states for electricity in the country,” Gates said. “What we need to do is find a balance between reducing emissions the best we can while also keeping an eye on what we’re going to do to local economies if we enact something too quickly.”

The EPA claims that the mercury rule will have a positive economic impact in the end by providing health savings of up to $140 billion from reduced asthma, heart disease and other serious ailments. Gates says the EPA underestimates the cumulative impact of multiple rules all coming down at once, particularly in a bad economy. The Sierra Club’s Ken Winston believes power companies are capable of covering costs that they have not paid in the past.

“They can absorb the cost of making these changes much more easily than a person can,” Winston said. “An individual whose child doesn’t develop appropriately because they’ve had mercury poisoning, that’s a life that’s destroyed and we can’t tolerate that.”

Rick Jackson is a senior host and producer at Ideastream Public Media. He hosts the "Sound of Ideas" on WKSU and "NewsDepth" on WVIZ.