By JACK WEATHERLY
Mississippi is one of 23 states that succeeded in convincing the U.S. Supreme Court that cost of compliance — estimated at $9.6 billion a year — for coal-fired power plants should have been considered by the Environmental Protection Agency in imposing limits on mercury and other air toxins under the Clean Air Act.
While the 5-4 decision on Monday did not overturn the EPA rule, the agency will have to rewrite it and include the costs.
Writing for the majority, Justice Antonin Scalia stated that “it is not rational . . . to impose billions of dollars in economic costs in return for a few dollars in health and environmental benefits.”
Scalia said that “quantifiable benefits” of reduction of pollutants amounted to only $4 million to $6 million a year.
Petitioners, which also included industry groups and utilities, appealed the ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.
For the dissenters, Justice Elena Kagan said that the EPA has taken cost into consideration during the rollout of the Clean Air Act of 1990, and that health benefits would save up to $80 billion a year.
The agency had argued that it did not have to take costs into account from the very outset of implementation of the act.
Jim Compton, general manager and chief executive of the South Mississippi Electric Power Associations, said that the ruling is “positive. Utilities don’t have costs. Ratepayers have costs.”
“The ruling is not about clean air, it’s about shutting down coal plants,” Compton said. “The issue ought to be the balance between clean air and cost of electricity.”
The group, which is a coalition of 11 cooperatives that cover much of the state from the Gulf to the Tennessee line, operates a coal-fired plant in Lamar County, which generates 400 megawatts of electricity and was built in 1978. It also uses natural gas and hydrological power and has a 10 percent interest in the Grand Gulf nuclear facility at Port Gibson.
Mississippi Power Co. operates a coal-fired plant in Jackson County. It converted one in Harrison County from coal to natural gas.
The utility is building a nonconventional power plant in Kemper County, which is designed to gasify lignite, a low-grade, soft coal mined on the site, to fire its turbines.
The Red Hills lignite-fired power plant in Choctaw County, a conventional operation, is owned by the Southern Co., parent of Mississippi Power.
Atlanta-based Southern Co. said in an email that it “has long believed that important energy policy decisions should be made by Congress and that, in this case, Congress clearly intended that EPA take into account the costs that the rule would impose — ultimately — on customers of electric utilities.”
Mississippi differs from Georgia, Arkansas and Alabama, which rely heavily on coal, Compton said.
Entergy Mississippi, which has no coal-fired plants, “doesn’t have a knee-jerk reaction against reasonable controls, but we do think that taking cost into consideration is a good thing,” said Chuck Barlow, vice president of environmental strategy and policy for Entergy Corp., the New Orleans-based parent of operating companies in four states, also including Louisiana and Texas.
Entergy Mississippi does own 25 percent of an Energy Arkansas coal plant, Barlow said.
The Mississippi utility has majority ownership of Grand Gulf.
Robbie Wilbur, spokesman for the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality, which had objected to the EPA rule, said in an email late Monday afternoon that “we are reviewing the ruling from the perspective of how it affects us as a regulatory agency.”
“For the case itself, we’ll refer to the Attorney General’s office as they handled the litigation for the state.” A message left there was not returned.
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