WASHINGTON — The Environmental Protection Agency unveiled new standards Wednesday sharply limiting emissions of mercury and other toxic pollutants from the nation's coal- and oil-burning power plants.
The new rule, unless blocked by Congress or the courts, will be the first time the federal government has enforced limits on mercury, arsenic, acid gases and other poisonous and carcinogenic chemicals emitted by the burning of fossil fuels.
EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said the regulations, more than 20 years in the making, would save thousands of lives and return economic and health benefits many times their estimated $9.6 billion annual cost.
"By cutting emissions that are linked to developmental disorders and respiratory illnesses like asthma, these standards represent a major victory for clean air and public health — and especially for the health of our children," Jackson said in statement.
President Barack Obama, who in September rejected a proposed EPA rule covering smog-causing emissions as too burdensome to industry, said he fully supported the new rule. He directed the agency to ensure that companies were given sufficient time and flexibility to comply.
Republican officials and a number of plant operators criticized the rule and are likely to challenge it in court and in Congress. They said it was too expensive and would force the premature closing of scores of power plants, eliminate hundreds of thousands of jobs and threaten the supply of electricity in some parts of the country.
Power plants generally have up to four years to comply. The EPA estimated that utilities would be forced to retire plants that currently provide less than one-half of 1 percent of the nation's generating capacity. At least one unit of the Crystal River power plant is at risk of retirement, the Associated Press reported.