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Recreational anglers and seafood devotees are all too familiar with advisories warning against consumption of fish and shellfish with unsafe levels of mercury. The dangers of the potent neurotoxin — which can cause developmental delays and lower IQs in fetuses and young children, even in low concentrations — has been understood for many years, but efforts to control it have lagged. Coal-fired power plants account for half of U.S. mercury emissions, but 40 years after the Clean Air Act, utilities continue to produce it without restriction.

That’s set to change on Dec. 16, when the Obama administration is scheduled to finalize the first federal regulation specifically limiting mercury emissions from power plants. The rule aims to reduce uncontrolled mercury emissions from power plants by more than 90 percent and would place limits on other toxic metals and acid gases.

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the rule will prevent from 6,800 to 17,000 premature deaths annually, as well as 11,000 non-fatal heart attacks, 120,000 cases of aggravated asthma and numerous developmental problems in children.

The EPA pegs the rule’s annual compliance cost for industry at almost $11 billion. But the agency projects that health benefits of $59 billion to $140 billion a year would outweigh compliance costs by five to 13 times.

Despite the favorable cost-benefit ratio, the agency once again finds itself in the cross hairs of powerful business interests and their congressional allies. Critics say the rule will cost far more — and, combined with a host of other administration policies affecting power plants, will act as yet another drag on the stalled economy. Lawmakers and industry are currently mounting a last-minute campaign to force the Obama administration to delay the rule, citing fears that the aggressive deadlines are unrealistic and will force the closure of power plants.

Utilities are not unified in their opposition to the rule. About 56 percent of existing coal-fired power plants already meet the proposed standards, having installed the necessary scrubbers and other emissions technology in part to comply with state laws. These companies maintain that it’s unfair to delay pollution controls that everyone knew were inevitable.

“The industry has had more than enough time to study and prepare for these requirements,” said Constellation Energy Group Inc., Exelon Corp., Pacific Gas and Electric Company and other power companies in a joint statement supporting EPA’s proposed rule earlier this year. “There ought to be no further delay.”

‘A Sensible Time Frame’

The House passed a bill earlier this year that would delay the EPA rule until a study of the cumulative effect of numerous regulations is completed, and similar efforts are emerging in the Senate.

Delay supporters are careful to emphasize that they are not trying to water down the rule’s requirements. “We’re simply asking for a sensible time frame with which to do this,” said Sen. Dan Coats, an Indiana Republican who recently introduced a bill that would postpone the mercury rule for two years.

But EPA backers, who recently saw the Obama administration retreat from a plan to tighten federal smog standards in the face of a similar industry campaign, are pushing equally hard for finalization of the mercury rule. They counter that some power companies are looking to capitalize on the slow economy in order to further delay investments in pollution-control upgrades that others have already made.

Sen. Thomas R. Carper, a Delaware Democrat who spent much of the past decade trying to head off the current uproar by pushing legislation that would have addressed mercury and other pollutants in a coordinated fashion, said the companies predicting doom from the mercury controls and other air rules have only themselves to blame.

“The utilities decided they didn’t want to compromise last fall on legislation, and they’d just take their chances after the elections,” Carper said last month. “And that’s how we ended up where we are.”

The tangled path toward mercury controls winds back to 1990, when Congress amended the Clean Air Act to require the EPA to study whether controls for many power plant emissions warranted regulation. In 2000, the agency determined that the health risks of mercury, which escapes from smokestacks and eventually settles into water and accumulates in fish, met the law’s standard for requiring the use of stringent pollution reduction technology. A court settlement required the regulation to be finalized by March 2005.

Instead, the EPA under President George W. Bush reversed the 2000 determination that triggered the rule-making process. In its place, it proposed a cap-and-trade system for mercury emissions, which would have allowed utilities to meet their reduction obligations by buying and selling pollution credits. Critics complained that the scheme would have allowed mercury to continue to accumulate at local “hot spots.”

A federal appeals court in 2008 ultimately ruled that the Bush EPA had acted improperly in its reversal and invalidated the Bush ruling. In March of this year, the Obama administration proposed the new rule, which must be finalized by Dec. 16 under a revised court order.

77 Months, Not 36

A key complaint is the rule’s compliance deadline of Jan. 1, 2015, which Sen. Joe Manchin III, a West Virginia Democrat, recently called “nearly impossible to realize.” Many companies insist there simply isn’t enough time to make the necessary upgrades, which would force the shutdown of many coal-fired plants until equipment can be ordered and installed.

In a letter delivered in November to the Office of Management and Budget and the EPA, the head of the American Public Power Association said its members would need 77 months, not 36, to comply with the law’s mandates.

Echoing the concern are congressional critics, including Sens. Lisa Murkowksi of Alaska and James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, the top Republicans on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources and Environment and Public Works committees, respectively. They complained to White House regulatory czar Cass Sunstein about the administration’s “apparent rush to publish a final rule” without considering a more practical compliance schedule.

EPA backers reject the complaints, saying the companies pressing for delay are simply trying to avoid the additional expense.

“The technology exists; it’s not inordinately expensive; utilities have the money,” said Carper, who chairs the Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Clean Air and Nuclear Safety. “We have tens of thousands of people that want to go to work installing pollution control equipment, including for mercury. We need to just do it.”

In addition to proposed legislative delays, at least one senator is plotting to bar the mercury rule outright. Kentucky Republican Rand Paul told reporters last month that he would “absolutely” challenge the rule under the Congressional Review Act, which allows Congress to block regulations from taking effect through simple majority votes in both chambers.

Paul maintains that improvements in air quality in recent decades negate the need for further regulation.

“We are controlling pollution,” he said after the Senate voted down a disapproval resolution he sponsored that would have blocked a different EPA regulation for controlling sulfur and nitrogen oxide pollution. “The environment’s better than it’s ever been and continues to improve.”

However, Carper noted that six Republicans voted against the resolution, a development that he said augurs well for upholding the mercury rule.

“I think there will be bipartisan support to defend the mercury rule,” he said.

Michigan Democrat John D. Dingell, the former long-serving chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, lamented the growing congressional animosity toward the Clean Air Act that he helped author. Dingell said the law “has worked” despite flaws.

“We are going to have to do a lot of work to see to it that we now have the law properly enforced, properly administered, rather than to spend our time carping about it,” he said at an event celebrating the 21st anniversary of the air law’s 1990 overhaul.

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