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Mercury in U.S. coal—Priorities for new U.S. Geological Survey studies

May 9, 2016

In 2011, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) introduced emissions standards, known as Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS), for a range of toxic constituents from coal-fired utility power stations and other combustion sources. This report presents the findings of an expert panel convened in September 2014 to assess the role of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) in new coal investigations that would be useful to stakeholders under MATS. Panel input is provided as summaries of responses to a questionnaire distributed to participants. The panel suggests that the USGS continue its work on trace elements in coal and include more information about delivered coals and boiler feed coals, in comparison to previous USGS compilations that emphasized sampling representative of coals in the ground. To be useful under multipollutant regulatory standards, investigation of a range of constituents in addition to mercury would be necessary. These include other toxic metals proposed for regulation, such as arsenic, nickel, cadmium, and chromium, as well as the halogens chlorine and fluorine, which upon emission form harmful acid gases. Halogen determinations are also important because they influence mercury speciation in flue gas, which allows the effectiveness of mercury controls to be assessed and predicted. The panel suggests that the Illinois Basin and the Powder River Basin should have the highest priority for new coal quality investigations in the near term by the USGS, on the basis of current economic conditions and overall economic importance, respectively. As a starting point for new investigations, brief summaries of the distribution of mercury in each coal basin, and their potential for further investigation, are presented.