Most Illinois utilities won't miss a beat when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency requires coal-fired power plants to control mercury emissions for the first time -- a decision environmental and health advocates say will reduce developmental problems in children but some industry groups complain is too restrictive.
In fact, the state already is way ahead.
The volume of mercury and mercury compounds emitted by Illinois' 23 power plants has fallen 44 percent, from 2008 through 2010 -- from a combined 4,482 pounds to 1,984 pounds, according to EPA data -- partly due to a state rule adopted four years ago. Several plants already meet or exceed the goal of reducing emissions 90 percent by 2015.
"We've had a lot of success in Illinois; we're very pleased," said Laurel Kroack, chief of the Illinois EPA's bureau of air. "A lot of (utilities) thought they would never get to 90 percent, but with a few tweaks, they got beyond it."
Illinois adopted its regulation in 2007 at the direction of then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who complained a Bush administration rule didn't reduce emissions far enough or fast enough. That federal rule eventually was thrown out by the courts, and the U.S. EPA was scheduled to issue rules Monday to meet a 90 percent reduction of mercury and other toxic air pollutants.
Most of the state's 23 coal plants show a steady decline of mercury emissions over the last three years. A few show an increase, though mostly as a result of burning more coal. The future of several individual plants is uncertain, though mostly because of age and other new EPA regulations.
The state rule didn't require most plants to begin controlling mercury until July of 2009, with the exception of Midwest Generation, which started earlier under an agreement with the state.
Other states, including neighboring Wisconsin, adopted mercury standards similar to Illinois', while some, like Indiana and Kentucky, decided to wait for the federal government to act.
"States that moved early are going to be ahead of the curve and not see the same kinds of need (to upgrade) that dirty laggard states will," said Frank O'Donnell, president of the advocacy group Clean Air Watch. He said the federal rule, though, "will be the single-most important step the Obama administration will take to clean up the air."
Some industry groups accuse the EPA of inflating the benefits and argue it would cost billions of dollars every year to comply with new pollution-control technology.
Scott Segal, director the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, a coalition of power companies, has said the new utility rules "would be the most expensive rule in EPA history" and cites a report that estimated they would cost the industry about $300 billion in the next five years and lead to lost jobs and electricity rate increases of 20 percent to 25 percent.
William Becker, executive director of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies, said states like Illinois already have proved that the reductions are possible and affordable. And pollution control technologies have improved significantly since states began leading the way.
The EPA has said it would cost industry nearly $11 billion a year to comply with the new rules, introduced in March in response to a court-ordered deadline. But it also estimated that the value of health benefits would be $59 billion to $140 billion by 2016, and save 17,000 lives a year by reducing mercury emissions from power plants by 91 percent and further limiting other pollutants.
The EPA said companies would have three years to comply, and some could be given an extra year.
Some utilities -- including those in Illinois -- support the rule, saying it levels the playing field among those that have invested in pollution controls and those that haven't.
"As a general principle, we believe one set of federal environmental regulations ... should apply to all companies across the country," said Susan Olavarria, spokeswoman for Midwest Generation, which was the first Illinois utility to achieve 90 percent mercury reduction at all of its Illinois plants. "We're proud of (Illinois') national leadership in mercury removal, but do believe there ultimately should be one set of standards to protect the public health and ensure fair competition among power generators."
Ameren Energy Resources, which operates six coal-fired plants in Illinois, would not comment on the mercury and air-toxics rule because it's not yet final, spokesman Brian Bretsch said.
Mercury is a potent neurotoxin that increases the risk of birth defects as well as developmental problems in small children. It can become toxic after entering soil and water, and its effects are magnified as it moves up the food chain. In Illinois, for example, the public is warned to limit consumption of fish from many of the state's lakes and streams because of high mercury levels.
O'Donnell, from Clean Air Watch, said it was important to have a uniform national rule because some states would not act otherwise, and much of the mercury emitted by power plants settles nearby.
The EPA rule also will restrict emissions of other toxins, including lead, arsenic and acid gas for the first time. Coal-fired power plants are by far the largest industrial source of toxic air pollution in the United States. Kroack, from the Illinois EPA, said some plants will have to install additional equipment to control those pollutants.
Utilities also are installing equipment to control pollutants that contribute to ground-level ozone and soot pollution, mandated by another recent federal rule meant to limit the amount of pollution that drifts to other states.
Ameren has said it will close two Illinois plants, in Crawford and Morgan counties, because of the costs of that rule, and Olavarria said Midwest Generation will evaluate costs and market conditions before deciding whether to retire its two Cook County plants. All four plants are older and smaller than some others in the state.