September 22, 2023

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Mercury Emissions from Fossil Fuel Power Plants Reduced by 90% Following MATS Implementation

Mercury Emissions from Fossil Fuel Power Plants Reduced by 90% Following MATS Implementation

Mercury Emissions from Fossil Fuel Power Plants Reduced by 90% Following MATS Implementation.

Mercury emissions from U.S. power plants have fallen by 90 percent in the decade since the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency implemented the Mercury and Air Toxic Substances Standard (MATS), a new study shows.

Despite this significant progress, Texas and North Dakota, which burn lower-quality lignite coal, remain high emitters of mercury, and the study also highlights sociodemographic disparities in being poorer, less educated and Communities with limited English proficiency are disproportionately exposed to dangerous levels of mercury.

Mercury Emissions from Fossil Fuel Power Plants Reduced by 90% Following MATS Implementation

Partisan political debates often neglect to emphasize the impressive results produced by the federal government’s signature environmental law.

A good example is the Mercury and Air Toxics Standard (MATS) developed by the US Environmental Protection Agency. These rules are intended to mitigate the adverse effects of hazardous air pollutant (HAP) emissions from fossil fuel-burning power plants.

A recent research paper from the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) shows that mercury emissions have decreased significantly over the past decade as a result of these standards.

Mercury emissions from U.S. power plants have dropped by 90 percent, meaning fewer neurotoxic substances end up in the atmosphere, soil, water, and food chain. Mercury is a potent neurotoxicant linked to a higher risk of fatal heart attack in adults.

Mercury Emissions from Fossil Fuel Power Plants Reduced by 90% Following MATS Implementation

Mercury levels in coal-fired power plants have decreased by 90 percent since the MATS rule took effect in 2011. Image source: Harvard Oceans

The new paper analyzes sociodemographic differences in mercury exposure at U.S. power plants and the residual risk for those most exposed.

The study was published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology Letters.

Prior to the enactment of MATS in 2011, coal-fired power plants were the largest source of hazardous mercury emissions in the country.

In 2005, coal-fired power plants accounted for 50 percent of all major sources of mercury emissions in the United States. The MATS regulations mandate that all power plant operators meet the highest levels of national emission control performance standards.

Many operators opted to shut down coal-fired generating units when natural gas prices fell. Some switch fuel types entirely to burn natural gas, a fuel source that produces negligible mercury emissions.

Of the 507 coal plants operating in 2010 before the MATS rule came into force, 230 will be fully decommissioned and 62 will be partially decommissioned by 2020.

“The MATS regulation is another exciting success story related to the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990,” said Elsie Sunderland, Fred Kavli Professor of Environmental Chemistry and Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at SEAS. “This regulation effectively eliminates most of the last remaining point sources of mercury emissions in the United States, benefiting millions of freshwater and recreational anglers across the country.”

Despite historic progress across the United States, two regions remain persistent sources of mercury emissions: Texas and North Dakota. Both states are home to power plants that burn locally mined lignite, a lower-quality, less-dense energy source than the bituminous coal that fuels factories in much of the rest of the country.

This means that lignite mercury combustion control standards in 2012 are less stringent than those set for most US power plants, and mercury emissions are still higher than in other regions after the implementation of the MATS rule.

EPA needs to periodically assess whether advances in available technology warrant updating its standards.

The agency has now proposed changes to MATS that would force operators of lignite power plants to adopt technologies that could significantly reduce their toxic emissions. These proposed stricter standards will be open for public comment until June 23, 2023.

People who eat fish from areas near coal-fired power plants are at greatest risk for health effects from mercury.

“Our recent work shows that strengthening the MATS rule, as proposed by the Biden Administration, would eliminate the last two mercury deposition hotspots in the United States caused by coal-fired power plants. This is an important change that will benefit disadvantaged and Indigenous communities,” Sunderland said.

The Harvard team also investigated whether the sociodemographic characteristics of people living near power plants that continue to operate in 2020 differ from those living near facilities that have been decommissioned since 2010.

They found that those who continued to be exposed to dangerous levels of electrical mercury plant emissions tended to come from poor, less educated households with limited English proficiency.

“This work exacerbates the lack of distributive justice in the siting of pollution sources and exposures in the United States, with impacts on the health of the most vulnerable individuals and communities,” said Dr. Mona Dai, lead author of the new paper.

Mercury Emissions from U.S. Fossil Fuel Power Plants Reduced by 90% Following MATS Implementation

(source:internet, reference only)

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