By Deb Courson Smith Big Sky Connection

HELENA — Coal-burning power plants across the country will now have to meet Montana’s standards when it comes to mercury pollution. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has released the final Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) rule that requires power plants to add pollution control equipment.

The federal rule goes beyond Montana’s, because it also requires a reduction in releases of arsenic, acid gas and cyanide. Billings physician Dr. Robert Merchant treats people with respiratory diseases that are exacerbated by power plant pollution.

“These are toxins that they’re talking about regulating, not just trying to make the air prettier–they’re trying to reduce the emissions because these are poisons.”

Critics of the standards claim they will mean lost jobs because companies will have to spend money to add equipment, although the EPA estimates the bottom-line savings in health costs and work productivity will mean at least $25 million for Montana by 2016. More than half of the nation’s coal-fired plants already use the pollution control equipment.

Dr. Merchant says power plant pollution’s link to lung diseases is well-known, but there are also scientific links to brain damage in children, as well as heart disease.

“These particulates and acids produce irritation to the lungs–that irritation produces inflammation throughout the body and actually increases heart attacks.”

Mercury and other toxins affect critters in Montana, too, with 56 bodies of water under ‘mercury advisories’ because fish carry high levels.

Details about the EPA rule are online at epa.gov/MATS.