The Common Good

EPA’s New Mercury and Air Toxics Standards = Breath of Fresh Air

After years of opposition from coal industry lobbyists, the Environmental Protection Agency has issued the first national standards for mercury and air toxin pollution.

Fisk Generating Station in Chicago. Image via Wylio
Fisk Generating Station in Chicago. Image via Wylio

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The standards will slash emissions of these dangerous pollutants by relying on widely available, proven pollution controls that are already in use at more than half of the nation’s coal-fired power plants.

The EPA estimates that the new safeguards will prevent as many as 11,000 premature deaths and 4,700 heart attacks each year. The standards also will help America’s children grow up healthier — preventing 130,000 cases of childhood asthma and about 6,300 fewer cases of acute bronchitis among children each year.

"By cutting emissions that are linked to developmental disorders and respiratory illnesses like asthma, these standards represent a major victory for clean air and public health– and especially for the health of our children," said EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson. "With these standards that were two decades in the making, EPA is rounding out a year of incredible progress on clean air in America with another action that will benefit the American people for years to come. ...The Mercury and Air Toxics Standards will protect millions of families and children from harmful and costly air pollution and provide the American people with health benefits that far outweigh the costs of compliance."

The Clean Air Act of 1990 took a step toward reducing mercury emissions, but the coal industry’s allies in congress has blocked portions — specifically reducing mercury and other air toxins — from being put into place, as higher standards would mean higher costs for coal and power companies.

Of course, the cleaner energy comes at a higher price. The cost of removing hazardous pollutants from 1,400 electric generation units could come out to $9.6 billion, with homeowners paying on approximately 3 percent more on their energy bills to offset the cost of upgrading.

But the overall cost? For every $1 spent to apply the new standard, we will get anywhere from $5 to $13 in health benefits. The EPA’s current estimate is that, if enacted fully for the next four years, it will save Americans $90 billion in health care costs. (Power plants, however, have until 2016 to update their facilities.)

Environmentalists and evangelicals (as well as those who believe this distinction is redundant) can both celebrate. “The unborn are the weakest members of our society," said the Rev. Mitch Hescox of the Evangelical Environmental Network. " We must protect them and insure their right to an abundant life. Currently 1 in 6 babies are born with harmful levels of mercury in their blood. The largest source of domestic mercury emissions are coal-fired electric utilities and the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards promulgated today will provide significant reductions, over 90 percent, of the mercury contained in the coal that is burned.”

Though Washington, D.C. feels decidedly bleak right now (and not because there aren’t any more leaves on the trees), the EPA’s Mercury and Air Toxics Standards is most certainly a breath of fresh air.

James Colten is a campaigns assistant for Sojourners.

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