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Giant Leaps Forward to Protect Communities from Toxic Power Plant Pollution

Posted by Kristen Welker-Hood, ScD, MSN, RN and Tony Craddock, Jr., Environmental Health Intern on March 18, 2011

The signing of the proposed Mercury & Air Toxic Standard is a long overdue victory for American public health.  EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson articulated that this is the initiation of an effort that will, “Save lives, prevent illnesses, and provide economic opportunities.”  This rule would require all coal and oil-powered plants to use pollution control technologies to decrease harmful emissions of mercury, arsenic, chromium, other toxic metals, acid gases and other organic air toxics. 

The 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act called for mercury pollution to be controlled by the “best technology”, yet somehow, coal and oil-fired power plants (which are responsible for 40% of mercury released into the air) were not prioritized for immediate emission reductions. PSR, along with other public health groups, filed a lawsuit against the EPA in 2005 because their Clean Air Mercury Rule (CAMR) failed to sufficiently protect the public from mercury pollution.  CAMR did not follow the letter of the law on how air toxics were to be controlled from major stationary sources.  CAMR illegally exempted coal and oil-fired power plants from the list of industrial sources governed under section 112 of the Clean Air Act, which requires specific maximum achievable control technology for air toxics.  Instead, this rule aimed to reduce mercury emissions from 50 tons to 15 tons per year by 2018 through a trading scheme that would have allowed some plants to increase mercury emissions, creating hot spots of local and regional mercury deposition. 

Alternatively, had the EPA at the time selected to control mercury by requiring new and existing power plants to match pollution reductions already achieved by the cleanest and best-performing power plants, emissions would have been reduced to 5 tons per year by 2008.  The U.S. Court of Appeals in 2008 ruled in favor of public health, vacating both the delisting of coal and oil-fired power plants under section 112 and the cap and trade program for controlling mercury emission.  Quickly on the heels of this decision, PSR and other public health and environmental coalition members sued to end a six-year long delay to control hazardous air pollutants from power plants. This suit led to a court order which required the EPA to release a rule that would address mercury and air toxic pollution by a deadline of March 16, 2011.

It doesn’t escape our notice that the newly proposed Mercury and Air Toxics Standard announced on March 16 fully employs the tools provided us by Congress under the Clean Air Act.  In doing so within four years after this rule becomes finalized, we will have achieved 91 percent mercury reductions into the air.  This is just what the doctor ordered.  Too bad the correct prescription was a bit delayed while the practitioners tinkered with ineffective alternatives.

Administrator Jackson stated on Wednesday that, “[This] announcement is 20 years in the making, and is a significant milestone in the Clean Air Act’s already unprecedented record of ensuring our children are protected from the damaging effects of toxic air pollution.”

Some of the health benefits from this proposed rule include:

  • 6,800 – 17,000 premature deaths
  • 4,500 cases of chronic bronchitis
  • 11,000 non-fatal heart attacks
  • 12,200 hospital and emergency room visits
  • 11,000 cases of acute bronchitis
  • 220,000 cases of respiratory symptoms
  • 850,000 missed days of work
  • 120,000 cases of aggravated asthma
  • 5.1 million days when people must restrict their activities

If you think the health benefits alone are impressive, we’re about to pop your socks off; the economic benefits are estimated to yield a return of anywhere from $5-13 for every $1 spent on emission control technology.  One cannot ask for a much better return on investment than this.

There is still much to be done to ensure that this promising proposed rule maintains its integrity and protects American families to its maximum capacity. This proposal is a monumental step in ending the days of decentralized pollution regulation among coal and oil-powered plants.  These plants finally have certainty about the standards with which they must comply and it is our responsibility to make sure that any changes from this point forward are made with the purpose of safeguarding the health of our citizens, and most certainly our children.  We ask you to join PSR in our efforts to assure that this standard is not watered down to maintain the status quo.

The signing of this proposed standard is just that; the signing of a proposal.  There will be a formal comment period and public hearings in which the public can submit their written feedback on the proposed rule.  EPA will hold public hearings on the proposal in Atlanta, GA, Chicago, IL, and Philadelphia, PA.  The dates are yet to be announced.  A 60-day comment period will start as soon as the proposed rule is posted in the federal register.  Stay tuned to PSR and we will notify you about how to submit comments into the EPA docket and give you further information about the public hearings. 


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