Editor's Note: This Signature Story is one of a four-part series "Coal at the Crossroads," exploring coal in the United States. The series is produced by NET News and QUEST, a journalism partnership with six other media entities focusing on science, environment and nature. You can find more QUEST stories at netNebraska.org/QUEST.
Bluestem Lake near Lincoln, Neb. is five miles north of a coal-fired power plant. It is also one of 85 bodies of water in the state under a consumption advisory because of fish found to have elevated levels of mercury in their tissues. Half of the airborne mercury pollution in the U.S. comes from coal-fired power plants. After years of study and debate, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is planning to announce new limits on mercury from coal plants in November. Ken Winston of the Nebraska Sierra Club believes the agency is doing the right thing.
"When you burn coal, mercury goes up into the atmosphere," Winston said. "It comes down in the form of rain. Fish eat it. People eat the fish. It can be very damaging and have a long term negative impact on the development of children. So it's something we need to get out of the environment as much as possible."
The EPA says its proposed new mercury rules could reduce emissions across the country by 91%. Meanwhile, utilities are scrambling to meet other new federal regulations and industry groups are asking the government to slow down. The Nebraska Public Power District operates two coal plants. Sheldon Station is south of Lincoln near Bluestem Lake. Gerald Gentleman Station, the state's largest coal plant, is in western Nebraska near Sutherland. Based on the proposed rule, NPPD Environmental Manager, Joe Citta, predicts the utility will need to install equipment that uses activated carbon in order to remove even more mercury than control systems already in place. Installation costs would add up to $20 million. On top of that, NPPD would have to budget for another $10 million in operating and maintenance costs.
"The system is several million dollars," Citta said. "But what really makes it expensive is the operating cost because activated carbon is rather pricey."
NPPD will spend 35 million dollars to meet another new regulation reducing smog-forming pollutants that cross state lines. That rule, called the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule (CSAPR), was announced in July and takes effect in January. Citta says it requires more cuts than many in the industry expected for pollutants like nitrogen oxides (NOx) and sulfur dioxide (SO2).
"This caught our state, many other states also," Citta said. When the final rule came out they had reduced those by an additional 40%. We felt the proposed rule was manageable. We would have had to do some things. But they were certainly more achievable than this additional 40% reduction."
Nebraska utilities feeling rushed by regulation are hoping to get some extra time. Nebraska Attorney General, Jon Bruning, is filing a lawsuit against the interstate smog rule , calling it another example of an "overreaching federal government run amok." A bill passed by the House of Representatives could slow things down by commissioning a study on the economic impact of the EPA's emissions agenda. Steve Gates of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Energy calls it a reaction to a lot of regulation in a short period of time.
"In a state like Nebraska where 65% of our electricity comes from coal, something is going to happen and the guess is electricity prices go up immediately," Gates said. "You know, there's just a lot of economic implications that really should be looked at before we jump into something that no one knows the outcome economically."
Nebraska rails are a major thoroughfare from Wyoming to power plants in the Midwest and southern Plains. Gates says the state's economic ties to coal show the advantage of having easy access to inexpensive energy.
"We're fortunate enough to be in the top ten lowest states for electricity in the country," Gates said. "What we need to do is find a balance between reducing emissions the best we can while also keeping an eye on what we're going to do to local economies if we enact something too quickly."
The EPA claims that the mercury rule will have a positive economic impact in the end by providing health savings of up to $140 billion from reduced asthma, heart disease and other serious ailments. Gates says the EPA underestimates the cumulative impact of multiple rules all coming down at once, particularly in a bad economy. The Sierra Club's Ken Winston believes power companies are capable of covering costs that they have not paid in the past.
"They can absorb the cost of making these changes much more easily than a person can," Winston said. "An individual whose child doesn't develop appropriately because they've had mercury poisoning, that's a life that's destroyed and we can't tolerate that."