A fisherman walks near Lake Champlain, N.Y., where mercury contamination has prompted the state to issue advisories against eating some fish. Alden Pellett/AP
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It’s an important moment for Americans who eat fish or use electricity. After more than two decades of delays, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is poised to issue a new regulation restricting some power plant emissions that have polluted the nation’s air and water.

Even though the rule won’t take effect until at least 2015, it’s a big deal. For the first time, all of America’s 150 oil-burning facilities and 1,500 coal-fired power plants would have to limit emissions of mercury and other air toxics — a class of nearly 200 hazardous, haphazardly regulated chemicals that have been the subject of the Poisoned Places series by the Center for Public Integrity’s iWatch News and NPR. The EPA is required to issue the new standard today, but some observers predict that the Obama administration will wait until Congress is out of session Monday to release the final language.

The draft Mercury and Air Toxics Standard proposed in March, which will likely mirror the final rule, would cost $10 billion to implement according to EPA estimates. But supporters say the 17,000 premature deaths avoided and $100 billion of health and environmental benefits realized annually would more than compensate for the $3 to $4 a month that EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said the regulation will cost homeowners when it’s fully implemented. Coal plants, which provide nearly half of the U.S. electricity supply and two-thirds of the nation’s airborne mercury, are likely to bear most of the costs for implementing the new standard.

While the rule will make electricity slightly more expensive, it also should make fish, and the people who eat them healthier, environmentalists say. Mercury, a coal combustion byproduct, is a potent neurotoxin linked to decreased motors skills and lower IQs. After it leaves the smokestack, mercury falls back to earth, polluting lakes and streams and accumulating in fish. As a result, consumption of contaminated fish is now the main source of human exposure to mercury, according to a recently released report by the public interest group Environment America.

The coal industry and its friends in Congress argue that the proposed emission limits for power plants are too expensive, would cost too many jobs and threaten the reliability of the electricity supply. Most of these claims have been debunked by independent experts. Nonetheless, House Republicans have begun to consider measures to block or delay the utility regulations.

Regulation of power plant emissions was required by the Clean Air Act amendments of 1990 but has languished for years. “I think from day one everybody knew that regulating mercury from especially power plants wasn’t going to be easy,” Lynn Goldman, who headed the EPA’s toxics office during the Clinton administration, said in an interview with NPR. “I don’t think anybody thought that today, 21 years later, we would still be in a position where this had not been controlled.”

States have had more success cutting mercury pollution from power plants. Seventeen have already enacted their own mercury-control programs. And, as the World Resources Institute has pointed out, “six of those states have standards more stringent than those proposed by EPA, and several of them have timelines more stringent than those imposed by the Clean Air Act.”

If nothing else, environmentalists and coal executives can agree that the forthcoming utility mercury rule is one of most significant — and costly — national air toxics standards to emerge from Washington in the past two decades. Others have stalled because of bureaucratic dawdling, industry resistance and legal maneuvering, iWatch News found.

Still, it’s too soon for pescetarians and public health advocates to start celebrating. As Frank O’Donnell, president of the advocacy group Clean Air Watch points out, there’s no guarantee that the rule that emerges this week or next will be as protective as the one proposed in March.

“We are informed reliably that the White House Office of Management and Budget, at the behest of the coal-burning electric power industry, is now pushing the EPA to weaken its mercury pollution control requirements in its upcoming toxic pollution rule for power plants,” O’Donnell told reporters last week. “Power companies could emit almost 20 percent more mercury under the dirty power industry scheme being promoted by OMB bean counters.”

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