Coal-fired power plants in Utah and around the country may soon see stricter standards on mercury emissions following a ruling Friday by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in a case that pitted 14 states against the Environmental Protection Agency.
Given that the three judges over the case are known to be "skeptical" of EPA actions, the ruling didn't come as a surprise to Cheryl Heying, director of the Utah Division of Air Quality. "We pretty much saw that one coming," she said.
Previously, the EPA regulated mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants under its "Clean Air Mercury Rule," which the Sierra Club says has a "weak" cap-and-trade program that still allows "dangerously" high levels of mercury pollution. But the 14 petitioners, Utah was not among them, claimed the rule violated the country's Clean Air Act by allowing the country's approximately 1,100 coal-fired units at more than 450 plants to emit 48 tons of mercury annually into the air.
"I think it's a very positive sign," said Tim Wagner, director of the Sierra Club Utah chapter's Utah Smart Energy Campaign. "It's about time our court system told the EPA to start doing their job as it's mandated."
Wagner predicts the ruling will at least have an impact in Utah on two permits currently being appealed, possibly resulting in those permits needing to be revised, remanded or even revoked. The permits are for a new plant in Sevier County and a third unit for the Intermountain Power Project site in Millard County. Utah has four existing coal-fired power plants.
But Wagner and Heying say they're not sure how the EPA will react to the new ruling, which could be appealed to the Supreme Court. Heying said it's uncertain what impact future EPA actions regarding mercury pollution will have on a state program implemented last year to limit emissions.
"We had tremendous buy-in from power plants," she said. "They saw this as an opportunity to do the right thing."
Plans to expand older plants or build new coal-fired units will come to a "screeching halt" until new regulations can be implemented, according to Jeff Salt, the Waterkeeper Alliance's executive director over its local chapter known as Great Salt Lakekeeper. Waterkeeper Alliance was among several public health and environmental groups, dozens of Native American tribes and the 14 states listed as complainants in the case.Watchdog groups note that in a single year a single gram of mercury, or 1/70th of a teaspoon, is sufficient to contaminate a 25-acre lake so that the fish living in its waters are unsafe to eat. Fish living in waters contaminated by mercury and then consumed by humans are often singled out as a health risk, particularly the impact on unborn babies in women who consume fish affected by mercury pollution.