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Advocates, Utility Companies Split Over EPA Standards

Ohio environmental groups are applauding the first federal limits on how much mercury coal-burning power plants can release into the environment. But utilities say the standards will drive up electric bills and cost hundreds of jobs. The latest rules cast another light on the tough balance of the environment and economics in crafting utility policy. Under the new federal benchmarks, utilities will have three years to cut 90 percent of the mercury emitted from power plants, and trim emissions of several other pollutants. Environmental and public health groups are praising the first federal limits on mercury. “Mercury is a neurotoxin, which means it can cause developmental disorders. That’s especially harmful to children," says Julian Boggs, a policy advocate with the group Environment Ohio. For Columbus-based American Electric Power, the new standards will mean… "...a net loss of about 600 jobs." AEP spokeswoman Melissa McHenry says that’s because installing pollution control systems at many aging coal-burning power plants doesn’t make economic sense, so they’ll have to close part or all of at least five plants, including the Picway Power Plant just south of Columbus. Of the 600 job cuts, McHenry says 150 will come in Ohio. She says working with a reduced infrastructure and installing pollution controls on plants that stay open will drive up customer electric bills by an average of 10 percent. And, she says, AEP and other utilities have concerns about possible electric shortages. "There’s a significant portion of coal-fired power plants across the U.S. that will not continue to operate, and if the economy improves and we get back to electricity demands levels that we were in in 2008, we could have a serious problem with the ability to continue to provide adequate amounts of electricity." Maybe less electricity, but public health advocates say it’ll also mean fewer heart attacks and asthma attacks. And they say short-term expenses for utilities will be off-set with long-term savings on medical costs and job gains in other sectors. "These are dirty power plants that are contributing to negative health impacts for the citizens in that community," says Tracy Sabetta with the National Wildlife Federation. "But it’s not the end of something, it’s the beginning of something. Ohio is poised to move forward into a clear energy future." Utilities have to be in compliance with the new EPA standards by December of 2014. Click here for Tom Borgerding's report on how a small eastern Ohio town keeps close watch on the coal pollution dispute.