By Timothy Gardner
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. environmental regulator said on Friday it will review recently finalized limits on mercury emissions on new coal-fired power plants in a process that could ease the rules for companies building five new projects.
The Environmental Protection Agency finalized the first-ever rules on mercury pollution from coal plants late last year.
But the EPA has also delayed or eased a number of recent measures for the energy industry after Republicans in Congress and businesses said they were too costly.
The EPA said Friday it will review information provided by industry after it finalized the rule last December to "provide greater certainty for five planned power plants in Georgia, Kansas, Texas and Utah," that would be covered by the standards.
Four companies hoping to build the new coal-fired power plants are: the White Stallion Energy Center, LLC in Texas; Tenaska Trailblazer Partners, LLC; the Deseret Power Electric Cooperative; and the Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, which plans to help expand the Holcomb power station in Kansas.
Tri-State and other groups had recently sued the agency over the mercury limits.
The EPA rule, known as the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, took the agency 20 years to develop. Mercury can harm the nervous systems of developing fetuses and infants and can enter the food supply through contaminated fish.
The EPA said the review would not impact limits already set for existing power plants, and would not change the expected costs or public health benefits of the rule.
In December, the EPA said the rules will cost utilities about $9.6 billion annually, but save $90 billion a year in healthcare costs. Technology to cut mercury and other toxic emissions targeted in the rule also reduced emissions of fine particulates which can damage hearts and lungs, it said.
"In agreeing to reconsider emissions standards for new power plants, the EPA is acknowledging that its standards are unachievable," said Ken Anderson, the general manager of Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, a consumer-owned, power supplier. Tri-State and others had filed suit against the EPA for its mercury rule.
"The agency should now review the comments of industry and technology vendors and come back with a regulatory standard that has a proper time frame and is rooted in the realities of science and engineering."
The agency said the review, known as a reconsideration, is a routine tool it uses to ensure its standards to incorporate new information.
A health group official said the review should not affect the rule's ability to protect people. "This is a minor technical fix," said Frank O'Donnell, the president of Clean Air Watch.
"We encourage EPA to make decisions based on the best information. Health and environmental groups will remain engaged to see this through."
(Reporting By Timothy Gardner; Editing by Bob Burgdorfer)