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Highlights

The 491 U.S. coal-fired power plants are the largest unregulated industrial source of mercury emissions nationwide, annually emitting about 48 tons of mercury--a toxic element that poses health threats, including neurological disorders in children. In 2000, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) determined that mercury emissions from these sources should be regulated, but the agency has not set a maximum achievable control technology (MACT) standard, as the Clean Air Act requires. Some power plants, however, must reduce mercury emissions to comply with state regulations or consent decrees. After managing a long-term mercury control research and development program, the Department of Energy (DOE) reported in 2008 that systems that inject sorbents--powdery substances to which mercury binds--into the exhaust from boilers of coal-fired power plants were ready for commercial deployment. Tests of sorbent injection systems, the most mature mercury control technology, were conducted on a variety of coal types and boiler configurations--that is, on boilers using different air pollution control devices. In this context, GAO was asked to examine (1) reductions achieved by mercury control technologies and the extent of their use at power plants, (2) the cost of mercury control technologies, and (3) key issues EPA faces in regulating mercury emissions from power plants. GAO obtained data from power plants operating sorbent injection systems. EPA and DOE provided technical comments, which we incorporated as appropriate.

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