AVON LAKE — The fate of the Genon Energy coal-fired lakeshore power plant hinges on whether company officials choose to comply with stricter U.S. Environmental Protection Agency mercury regulations announced Wednesday or close the plant.
Mark Baird, a Genon spokesman, said after the announcement that the company may need a few months to make a decision.
“We’ll analyze it and act accordingly,” he said of the announcement.
The safeguards, which will cost $9.6 billion to implement, will prevent 11,000 premature deaths and 4,700 heart attacks annually, the EPA estimated. Ohio has the second-highest death rate from power plant emissions, according to the Clean Air Task Force, the environmental watchdog that sued the EPA for tougher mercury emission standards.
A study commissioned by the task force last year found that 1,221 Ohioans die annually due to power plant emissions, including 29 people in Lorain County. Another 47 county residents sustain heart attacks and 440 suffer asthma attacks.
EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson in a news release called the new standards a “major victory” for public health.
“The mercury and air toxics standards will protect millions of families and children from harmful and costly air pollution and provide the American people with health benefits that far outweigh the costs of compliance,” she said.
Baird said he didn’t know if the 763-megawatt Avon Lake Generating Station has modern pollution control devices like scrubbers but said the plant complies with all EPA regulations. However, WOIO Channel 19 in Cleveland reported last month that the plant was penalized in June by the U.S. EPA for failing to install pollution control devices.
Genon has 49 plants in 12 states and about 2,200 employees, including 50 to 100 at the Avon Lake plant, Baird said. Genon spends between $2.1 billion and $2.5 billion annually on maintenance and upgrades of its plants.
The Avon Lake plant is not on the list of an Associated Press survey of power plant producers that found 32 mostly coal-fired plants would close in a dozen states and another 23 could close because of stricter EPA rules. The plant has three units.
The largest, a 640-megawatt unit, was activated in 1970, according to the Genon website. The 94-megawatt unit began operations in 1949, while the 29-megawatt unit was activated in 1971. A megawatt provides electricity to about 600 homes annually.
Baird wouldn’t say whether Genon supports the tougher national standards for mercury and other toxic pollutants, which are the first to be applied to nation’s oldest and dirtiest power plants. About half of the 1,300 coal- and oil-fired units nationwide still lack modern pollution controls, despite the EPA in 1990 getting authority from Congress to control toxic air pollution from power plant smokestacks.
In 2000, the agency concluded it was necessary to clamp down on emissions to protect public health.
The EPA delays infuriated environmentalists, who cheered Wednesday’s announcement.
“It’s long overdue, but they stood up against big polluters and special interests, and they did the right thing for public health,” said David Celebrezze, director of air and water special projects for the Ohio Environmental Council, a Columbus-based watchdog. “Industry cannot regulate itself. It’s proven that.”
The rules come after intense lobbying from power producers and criticism from Republicans, who said the rule would threaten jobs and electric reliability and raise electricity prices. Celebrezze counters that scrubbers will create jobs and some of the aging plants were going to be closed by the companies regardless.
Celebrezze noted the Obama administration will encourage states to make “broadly available” an additional fourth year to comply with the rule, as allowed by the law.
Case-by-case extensions could also be granted to address local reliability issues.
Some in the industry wanted an automatic and longer delay, to ensure that the combination of power plants retiring and those shutting down temporarily to install pollution control equipment would not affect reliability.
But even the chair of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the independent body that ensures electric reliability, did not see evidence for a blanket extension.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.