WASHINGTON — The Environmental Protection Agency would require oil- and coal-burning power plants to dramatically reduce hazardous air pollution under an agreement announced Friday that ends a long-standing lawsuit filed by environmentalists.
The agreement -- which would probably boost electricity prices but could potentially save thousands of lives -- commits the EPA to set pollution standards by 2011 for the power plants that are responsible for nearly half of all emissions of mercury, which can harm brain development in fetuses and children.
Once the EPA sets the standards, many power plants would be forced to install pollution scrubbers that capture heavy metals such as mercury -- along with particulates such as soot. Currently, less than one-third of those plants employ scrubbers.
Environmentalists hailed the decision and equated it, in environmental protection terms, with EPA moves this year to begin limiting greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles, factories, power plants and other major emitters.
"This is the Holy Grail for pollution control," said Jim Pew, an attorney at Earthjustice, one of the groups that brought the suit.
The effect of the new rules is expected to be greatest in the East and Midwest where coal-fired power plants are most common. On the West Coast, such plants are rare, and though California gets large amounts of power from coal-fired plants in Nevada, pollution tends to spread over less populated areas to the east.
Environmentalists estimate that the new rules could save 35,000 lives each year by 2025. Those projections are based on an EPA analysis of the effects of a similar proposed law regulating sulfur dioxide, a pollutant that lodges deep in the lungs, causing premature heart attack, stroke and cardiac arrest.
Installing scrubbers would reduce most emission of air toxins, including sulfur dioxide.
According to a 2004 study by a group of Northeast air quality agencies, the new rules could result in a 90% reduction in mercury emissions.
"This power-plant rule could reduce sulfur dioxide levels by 80% to 90%," said John Walke, clean air director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, another party to the suit. The scrubbers are "not cheap, but you see the health benefits."
Representatives of the power industry said that by setting targets that would apply to all plants -- including smaller plants used only intermittently -- the new standards would push electricity prices up and encourage industrial consumers to move abroad in search of weaker, less expensive emission standards.
Industry lobbyists said Friday that they were unable to estimate the exact cost increases but predicted they would be high.
The EPA had been required under the Clean Air Act of 1990 to issue its rules by the end of 2002, but the Bush administration argued at the time that such rules were unnecessary.
The environmental groups that brought the suit say that the EPA has been stalling.
The agency said in a statement that "addressing hazardous air pollutant emissions from utilities is a high priority," adding that it began the rule-making process in July and plans to issue proposed standards by March 2011.
"The agency is committed to developing a strategy to reduce harmful emissions from these facilities, which threaten the air we all breathe," said the EPA.
The power plant industry has spent years trying to find an alternative to the looming EPA rule-making, whereby standards would be set based on the current emission rates of the cleanest 12% of coal- and oil-fired plants.
With the backing of the Bush administration in previous years, the industry has been pushing to create an emissions market in which plants could trade emissions allowances instead of being forced to hit set targets.
That approach, known as the Mercury Rule, was proposed by the EPA under the Bush administration, but it was struck down by the courts, which ruled that it did not comply with the Clean Air Act.
"Obviously, we wanted the [Mercury Rule] to go forward because the rule would have given us more flexibility," said Frank Maisano of the law firm Bracewell & Giuliani, which represents power plant operators. "The Clean Air Act just doesn't have the flexibility to allow us to do this creative thinking."
Maisano also said that the Obama administration is more in line with the environmentalists' goals.
"This really seems to be the environmentalists negotiating with themselves," he said. "Because the new EPA is certainly much more in agreement with the environmental community than they had been in the last eight years."