Up in the air

Going Green
By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  July 3, 2012

In late June, Maine senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins voted for our health when they voted against a proposal to block the Environmental Protection Agency's Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) for power plants. The new standards, finalized in December 2011, are the first to limit mercury and other toxic emissions. (Never mind that the Clean Air Act amendments mandating the creation of those standards were passed 20 years ago!)

According to the EPA, MATS would reduce emissions of heavy metals, including mercury, arsenic, chromium, and nickel, as well as acid gases and sulfur dioxide. All of these are known or suspected to cause everything from certain cancers to asthma, bronchitis, and respiratory illness. Oil- and coal-fired power plants are the largest remaining source of mercury emissions into the air, and from there into the water, where toxins pollute water sources and fish populations. The EPA estimates that once the new rules are implemented, the human health savings will be between $37 billion and $90 billion per year.

Apparently these facts fell on some deaf ears. In early 2012, Republican senator Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma introduced a bill to "disapprove" of MATS — thereby nullifying both its force and effect. In an opinion piece published at CNN.com, Inhofe called MATS "the centerpiece of President Obama's war on coal. . . . this rule will destroy jobs and cause energy prices to skyrocket."

Maine's Republican senators rejected this.

In its own defense, the EPA claims that MATS will create 46,000 short-term and 8000 long-term jobs, that upgrades will not lead to utility-rate increases, and that the total national cost of this rule will be under $10 billion.

Three plants in Maine are covered by the new standards — the oil-fired Wyman plant in Yarmouth (see "This is Why We're So $%&@^# Hot," by Christian MilNeil, July 29, 2011), as well as ones in Rumford (coal) and Ashland (oil). They, along with about 1400 other plants, have four years to comply with the new rules.

"Certainly, the bulk of mercury pollution comes from coal-fired power plants, and Maine gets a lot of 'tailpipe' pollution from those out-of-state power plants," says Ben Seel, a clean air organizer for the advocacy organization Environment Maine. "The effects of the mercury pollution in Maine are reflected in statewide advisories from the Maine Bureau of Health, which recommend that pregnant women, women of childbearing age, and young children limit their fish consumption based on the type of fish they consume."

Another nearby plant that may have to upgrade its existing pollution controls or install new ones to be in accordance with MATS is the Schiller Station in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. This coal power plant — visible from the bridge that crosses into Maine — recently came under fire from both the Maine and New Hampshire chapters of the Sierra Club, which claim that Schiller is polluting Portsmouth and Southern Maine with high levels of sulfur dioxide (SO2). The Schiller Station will violate new SO2 regulations when they go into effect, the Sierra Club says.

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