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March 22, 2012 was World Water Day. See how North Carolina citizens came together to protect their waters from coal ash.

It’s no secret that coal is our dirtiest energy source. However, what many people don’t know is that as coal burns, many of its most toxic elements, including heavy metals like arsenic, mercury and chromium, are concentrated in the ash that remains and the sludge that’s scrubbed from smokestacks. This by-product is called coal ash. It’s the second largest industrial waste stream in United States and is essentially unregulated.

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From the Washington Post:

The Obama administration finished crafting tough new rules Friday curbing mercury and other poisons emitted by coal-fired utilities, according to several people briefed on the decision, culminating more than two decades of work to clean up the nation’s dirtiest power plants.

As part of last-minute negotiations between the White House and the Environmental Protection Agency, the regulations give some flexibility to power plant operators who argued they could not meet the three-year deadline for compliance outlined by the EPA. Several individuals familiar with the details declined to be identified because the agency will not announce the rules until next week.

The new rules will cost utilities $10.6 billion by 2016 for the installation of control equipment known as scrubbers, according to EPA estimates. But the EPA said those costs would be far offset by health benefits. The agency estimates that as of 2016, lowering emissions would save $59 billion to $140 billion in annual health costs, preventing 17,000 premature deaths a year along with illnesses and lost workdays.

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Several experts said the new controls on mercury, acid gas and other pollutants represent one of the most significant public health and environmental measures in years. The rules will prevent 91 percent of the mercury in coal from entering the air and much of the soot as well: According to EPA estimates, they will prevent 11,000 heart attacks and 120,000 asthma attacks annually by 2016.

“I think this will prove to be the signature environmental accomplishment of the Obama administration,” said Frank O’Donnell, who heads the advocacy group Clean Air Watch. “It will soon mean the end of the smoke-spewing coal power plant as we know it today. At the same time, the administration is trying to add a bit of flexibility to extinguish the bogus claim that these standards could mean lights out.”

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Congress exempted toxic pollution from power plants — which can include arsenic, chromium, lead, formaldehyde and dioxins, among other substances — when it amended the Clean Air Act in 1990. In 2000, under the Clinton administraion, the EPA determined that it should be regulated, but a lengthy legal and lobbying battle ensued.

The EPA finalized the rules Friday to meet the terms of a court-ordered settlement with several advocacy groups that had sued the agency over its 10-year delay in issuing the regulations.

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From Epoch Times:

Coal and oil-burning power plants have long been responsible for much of the nation’s air pollution. But a new report says that these facilities have managed to avoid emissions standards that every other industry has had to observe for decades.

The Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) last week released an analysis identifying the nation’s most polluting power plants. Using the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxic Release Inventory, the report examined power plant emissions of four highly toxic heavy metals. They found that most of the mercury, arsenic, and selenium released into our air can be traced to a relatively small of amount facilities.

“Half of all the mercury in the U.S. today comes from approximately 500 existing coal fired power plants,” said Bruce Nilles, director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal initiative, in a conference call for the report.

EIP associate director Ilan Levin added that only 47 facilities were responsible for “almost 60 percent of all power plant chromium emissions nationwide.”

“These chemicals are listed as hazardous air toxics for a reason—at high levels they are dangerous to people and the environments,” continued Levin. “For example, arsenic and chromium are human carcinogens, lead and mercury exposure are known to harm brain and nervous system development in infants and children. These are dangerous chemicals.”

Overall toxic emissions have declined over the past decade. But the EIP says the decrease is being driven by a few companies that are installing modern pollution controls, while the rest of the nation’s power plants are doing very little.

Nilles explained that the coal industry has managed to skirt regulations since 1990, when Congress put in place requirements for all other industries to take steps toward tougher pollution controls. When the legislation was passed, power plants were granted a special exemption, and the EPA was required to conduct a study to examine whether controlling power plant pollution was necessary and appropriate.

“If you step back and think about that, this loophole is pretty remarkable,” observed James Pew attorney for Earthjustice. “It’s essentially saying for an industrial category that everybody already knew was the worst polluter the EPA had to determine whether it was worth controlling.”

While the required study confirmed that power plants were indeed a major source of pollution, stricter standards were further delayed during the Bush administration. The industry insisted that curbing emissions was an impossible task, and some lawmakers were concerned that harsher regulations would significantly raise energy costs.

But experts say that the technology and pollution control equipment necessary to clean up toxic emissions has been widely available for years, and has already been working at some power plants across the country.

“This is not something we don’t know how to fix,” continued Nilles. “There are readily available technologies that are able to address mercury pollution and a host of other toxic pollutants that come from coal burning. We know from EPA studies that go back a decade that there is pollution technology available that would reduce mercury emissions 90 percent—from current levels of 34 tons to 5 tons.”

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Image from Flickr.

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