All the recent climate change related litigation has overshadowed major activity around control of hazardous air pollutants (HAPs) from coal plants. Mercury is one such HAP. Back in February 8, 2008 in New Jersey v. EPA, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals threw out U.S. EPA’s cap and trade program for mercury, known as the Clean Air Mercury Rule (CAMR).
EPA’s decision to create a cap and trade program for mercury was very controversial. Those opposed said cap and trade was not meant to control toxic pollutants like mercury. In response, a number of states rejected the CAMR rule and adopted state programs that established control requirements for every coal plant within their borders.
While the federal court declared CAMR illegal, it also made an important determination as it relates to control of HAPs from coal plants. In order to create the cap and trade program, the Bush Administration had to undue the efforts of the Clinton Administration to establish facility specific control standards for coal plants under Section 112 of the Clean Air Act.
In December 2000, the Clinton EPA decided to list electric generating units (EGUs) under section 112. By listing this source category under Section 112, all existing and new plants must meet Maximum Available Control Technology Standards (MACT) for controlling emissions of HAPs. MACT is emission controls equal to the "average emission limitation achieved by the best performing 12 percent of the existing sources."
In order to create its cap and trade program, the Bush Administration tried to de-list EGUs as a source category regulated under Section 112. The federal court in New Jersey v. EPA found this action to be illegal. This means that EPA must move forward with rules establishing a MACT standard for EGUs. To date, EPA has failed to take such action. As reported in the Charleston Gazette this week, groups have sued EPA to compel such action.
A coalition of environmental groups has filed a lawsuit trying to force the federal government to comply with a 6-year-old mandate to reduce toxic chemical emissions from coal-fired power plants.
The suit, filed Thursday in federal court in Washington, asks for a court order requiring the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to set limits for mercury and dozens of other hazardous air pollutants.
The new lawsuit follows a major decision by a federal court in North Carolina (Southern Alliance for Clean Energy v. Duke) that invalidated a permit for construction of a new coal plant because the permit failed to show compliance with MACT for HAPs. The main issue in the case was whether the MACT standards apply to the on-going construction of a coal plant following the New Jersey decision. Notably, the Court ruled that MACT did apply even though the permit was issued and construction had already began on the new source.
While mercury and other HAPs won’t be controlled from existing plants until EPA finalizes its MACT standards for EGUs, at least one federal court has said new plants must meet the yet to be established standard. This presents another avenue for environmentalists to challenge air permits for coal plants, even permits issued prior to the February 8, 2008 decision.