Justices’ ruling a setback for coal-pollution limits

The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld a challenge by Michigan and 20 other states, including South Carolina, to new regulations of mercury and other toxic air pollutants at coal-fired power plants.

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday ruled federal regulators must weigh the costs before further limiting mercury and other pollution emitted by coal-fired power plants.

Michigan and 20 other states, including South Carolina, opposed the new limits, joined by industry groups

Industry and environmental advocates in the region were circumspect in reacting to the ruling.

The tougher limits are already somewhat in force and due to be fully implemented by next year.

Other pollutant restrictions are in the works.

The decision returns the case to a lower court, saying health risks can’t be the only consideration under the Clean Air Act. That court must decide whether the EPA must rework the rules, which some contend are prohibitively expensive.

Six power plants currently use coal in the state, three of them in the Charleston area, according to the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.

South Carolina Electric & Gas and Santee Cooper utilities already are taking steps to reduce the percentage of coal used, largely by moving to nuclear power, and rates are rising to pay for the nuclear plant under construction near Winnsboro.

The move is partly in response to the proposed limits and other tightening federal regulations. Spokespeople for both companies said the efforts would continue. “Today’s Supreme Court ruling doesn’t change SCE&G’s compliance strategy or timeline, which includes completion of two new nuclear units (individual reactors) that will be non-emitting, retirement of three of our older coal-fired units (individual coal burners),” said spokeswoman Ginny Jones.

The company also is converting three of its smaller coal-fired units to natural gas and will shut them down when the nuclear units begin producing power, she said.

“We’re not changing our course of action,” said Mollie Gore, Santee Cooper spokeswoman. The company has shut down four units and reduced the percentage of power generated from burning coal from 81 percent to 55-60 percent in seven years and is on track to reduce it to 40 percent by 2020, she said.

An environmental spokesman stressed that the ruling was not a defeat for “critical protections,” just returned the case to lower court. The decision “does not necessarily — and should not — delay vital safeguards for people’s health, particularly in the Southeast, where people are vulnerable to some of the largest concentration of coal-fired power plants in the country,” said John Suttles of the Southern Environmental Law Center.

S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson acclaimed the ruling as a victory for the state, saying in part it “confirms our belief that the EPA has continued to overstep its authority and has tried on multiple occasions to implement burdensome regulations which would be harmful to our economy.”

Coal-fired power plants have been criticized for toxic discharges that include mercury, a pollutant whose presence in fish has spurred health advisories to be issued for nearly every waterway in South Carolina. Critics say the plants are given leeway by pollution regulators because of the critical need for electricity.

The court split 5-4 along ideological lines to rule that the EPA failed to consider the cost when the agency first decided to regulate the toxic emissions from coal- and oil-fired plants. The EPA did factor in costs at a later stage when it wrote standards that are expected to reduce the toxic emissions by 90 percent.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.