By Ayesha Rascoe
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Environmental Protection Agency's timeline for implementing new rules requiring utilities to reduce emissions of toxic chemicals is too aggressive and could put the reliability of the nation's electric grid at risk, company executives said on Friday.
The EPA has proposed a three-year schedule for power plants to comply with new pollution rules for utilities, but the executives said that is not enough time for companies to adjust to the complex regulations.
"If EPA continues on its present path, the result will be to harm power consumers ... and threaten jobs and economic growth," Thomas Fanning, head of Southern Co, told lawmakers at a House of Representatives Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing on the EPA regulations.
The anti-pollution regulations proposed by EPA last month would require many coal-fired power plants to install scrubbers and other technologies to cut the levels of arsenic, chromium, nickel and acid gases in addition to mercury escaping through smokestacks and eventually reaching water supplies, which can damage nervous systems in babies.
Fanning said the new rules coupled with a suite of other pollution regulations being pursued by EPA will raise costs and force a significant amount of plants to shut down, hampering the nation's ability to handle periods of high electricity demand or power outages.
While the EPA can extend the compliance deadline for individual plants by up to a year, Fanning said four years would still be insufficient for companies to make the necessary modifications to their plants.
Anthony Earley, executive chairman for DTE Energy, said utilities have already made great strides in lowering air pollution since the Clean Air Act was proposed in the 1970s and there is no urgent need to move ahead with EPA's current regulatory timeline.
"The progress our industry has made in cleaning the air since the Clean Air Act was adopted ... is one of the greatest environmental success stories," Earley said. "The bottom line is our children are breathing air today that is far cleaner than the air we inhaled as children.
Republicans in the House of Representatives said this week that they plan to introduce legislation that would delay the implementation of the toxic pollution rules for utilities, as well as those for boilers and cement plants.
"The goal is not to repeal these regulations. it is to advance them in reasonable way," Energy and Commerce committee chairman Fred Upton said at the hearing.
Still, the top Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce panel said Friday's hearing was just one more "in a series of assaults on the Clean Air Act."
"Delaying these rules will hurt a large number of people, especially children," Representative Henry Waxman said. He said the implementing the rules would prevent thousands of premature deaths, heart attacks and aggravated asthma each year.
(Editing by Alden Bentley)