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The Obama administration on Wednesday announced landmark new rules requiring power plants to sharply reduce emissions of mercury and other toxic pollutants.

The regulations, first proposed in March, were finalized last week by the Environmental Protection Agency under a court deadline, and have been subject to heavy lobbying and vigorous debate between the electric industry and environmental and public health advocates.

Utilities and their allies in Congress have complained the regulations are the costliest of several tough regulations already or soon to be imposed on coal-burning utilities and said the agency has underestimated both he difficulty of implementing it and the economic fallout that will occur as a result. States like Missouri, which gets 80 percent of its electricity from coal, will be especially hard hit, they say.

But EPA officials insist that the regulations will bring $37 billion to $90 billion in public health benefits by 2016. That overwhelms the estimated $10 billion cost to utilities and their consumers.

"This is a great victory for public health," EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson said during a briefing with reporters. "Coming generations will grow up exposed to lower levels of toxic pollution in the air they breathe."

Backers say the regulations are an especially important advance, especially in states like Missouri, where there are presently no limits on mercury emitted from power plant stacks. Illinois, which gets almost half of its power from coal, put more stringent mercury standards in place several years ago and has seen emissions decline.

The rules replace less aggressive limits on mercury established by the George W. Bush administration that were later thrown out by the federal courts. The Bush rules had established a cap-and-trade program that allowed utilities that reduced emissions to could sell credits to those that didn't.

The final regulations affect about 600 oil- and coal-burning power plants that will have three years, and in some cases longer, to slash mercury emissions by 90 percent and make deep cuts in the release of gases like hydrochloric acid and metals like arsenic and chromium for which there are currently no national standards.

St. Louis-based Ameren Corp., one of the nation's biggest coal-burning utilities, estimates it will spend hundreds of millions of dollars to upgrade its nine coal power plants in Illinois and Missouri to comply.

"We're going to have to put some form of additional controls on all of our plants on both sides of the river," Mike Menne, the company's vice president of environmental services, said in an interview.

Ameren, which recently cited previous environmental regulations for a decision to close two small coal-fired plants in Illinois, said no additional plants will need to be shuttered.

Menne isn't certain that Ameren would be able to meet the new emissions standards within three years as required, and may need to use a provision in the rules to seek an extension.

"We think because we have so many units it may take us longer," Menne said. The exact timing and costs will depend on many factors, including the availability of equipment, he said.

Ameren has already implemented new pollution controls at the company's Illinois coal plants and is achieving mercury reductions of 40 percent to 80 percent. In Missouri, it recently spent $600 million on new equipment at its Sioux plant in St. Charles County that captures mercury and other pollutants, and it has tested mercury controls at its Meramec and Labadie plants.

The 1,600-megawatt Labadie plant is just the kind of industrial polluter that the new rule targets. Not only is it Missouri's largest power plant, it doesn't presently have any form of mercury controls and was the nation's second-largest mercury emitter in 2010, according to EPA data. As a state, Missouri ranked fourth for mercury emissions.

The so-called mercury and air toxics standard comes just months after the agency finalized another set of tough regulations that require steep reductions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions in 27 eastern states, including Missouri, beginning next year.

The combination of new and proposed requirements for coal-burning power plants and regulations on mining have drawn a sharp response from Congressional Republicans like U.S. Sen Roy Blunt of Missouri.

Blunt, who has accused Obama's EPA of waging a war on coal, estimated the new power plant emissions rules promulgated over the past six months will cost the nation more than a million jobs and drive up electric rates in states such as Missouri by 20 percent. He vowed "to continue working to stop rules like this and other job-destroying regulations."

Karl Brooks, the regional administrator for the EPA in Kansas City, said Missouri could see 3 percent increases in electricity costs over time, but will benefit more than many other states through hundreds fewer premature deaths and sick days, doctor's visits and hospital stays.

"Ordinary people bear the cost of pollution," he said.

Environmental and public health groups say the rule was necessary and long overdue.

"We are extremely pleased that the EPA held firm in issuing these standards on time and at levels of stringency that promise significant public health protections," said Ann Weeks, senior counsel for the Boston-based Clean Air Task Force, who was the lead counsel in the court case that established the deadline for issuing the regulations announced Wednesday. "Americans have been waiting for nearly a decade for the Agency to regulate the dangerous air toxics released by this industry."

Power plants are the largest source of airborne mercury, a neurotoxin that accumulates in lakes and streams and becomes more potent as its ingested by fish -- the main source of exposure for people.

Pregnant women, unborn babies and young children are especially vulnerable to mercury, according to studies linking high levels to development of nervous systems, which can impair children's ability to think and learn.

Other toxic metals emitted from power plant stacks such as arsenic, chromium and nickel can cause cancer. And cutting emissions will also reduce the amount of fine particle pollution that contributes to heart attacks, bronchitis and asthma.

EPA officials challenged industry's dire predictions about coal plant closures and impacts on reliability, and said technology needed to meet the standards are widely available and already in use at more than half of the nation's coal-fired power plants.

Jackson estimated that the regulations would indirectly force 4.7 gigawatts of coal-fired generation -- less than 0.5 percent of the nation's total -- offline. Ultimately, she said "businesses will make a business decision" whether to invest in emissions controls, switch to cleaner fuels or close plants.

She also said the rules would be a net jobs creator, sparking 46,000 temporary construction jobs and 8,000 permanent jobs.

The regulations announced by the EPA on Wednesday differ only slightly from the version proposed nine months ago. The agency said changes makes the rules easier and less costly to implement and shave more than $1 billion from the cost to industry.

Even though the rule was a long time coming and suffered setbacks, it got done and will get results, Brooks said.

"I think people are going to look back at 2011 as the year we really delivered on the promise of the Clean Air Act," he said.

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