New EPA standards are good for Americans’ health

On Wednesday, March 16th, Environmental Protection Agency administrator Lisa Jackson proposed national emissions standards for coal fired power plants that would curb the release of dozens of poisonous substances including mercury, arsenic, and dioxin. These proposed standards were hailed by public health organizations as well as by many utility companies.  CAP’s Emily Bischof has the story

To reinforce the urgency of these reductions, the Environmental Defense Fund published a report highlighting the airborne mercury emissions from U.S. power plants.  Mercury is highly toxic to human health, causing neurologic and kidney disorders. Fetal exposure to mercury can lead to developmental problems such as reductions in cognitive thinking, memory loss, attention deficits, language impairment, and reduced fine motor skills. Young children are also subject to these risks when exposed to mercury. EDF estimates that 410,000 babies are born to mothers with blood mercury levels above the recommended safe concentration. In addition to the 35 tons of mercury pollution emitted into the atmosphere, coal fired power plants are responsible for the emission of other air pollution such as metals and acid gases; toxic chemicals known to cause cancer and birth defects. What’s more, particulate matter in the air is responsible for staggering numbers of asthma attacks across the United States.

The proposed reduction rules will require plants throughout the United States to take measures that will protect the health of all Americans.   When final, the rules would require coal fired power plants to use tested and cost effective solutions that reduce mercury emissions. The most common of these solutions, Activated Carbon Injection (ACI), has proven to reduce mercury emissions by an average of 90 percent in the tested boilers. As of June of 2010, 40 coal plant units had installed ACI and another 100 units had ordered its installation. This technology is available for all coal types.  This technology would also reduce clean up costs.

Reducing toxic chemical emissions will lead to exponential health benefits, including the prevention of 11,000 heart attacks and 17,000 premature deaths per year.  Health improvements specifically affecting children can be found in the yearly avoidance of 120,000 asthma symptoms and 11,000 fewer cases of bronchitis.  According to the American Lung Association, “particle pollution from power plants is estimated to kill approximately 13,000 people a year.”

Other benefits directly and indirectly generated by this rule include: the creation of 31,000 short term construction jobs and 9,000 long term utility jobs, and 12,000 avoided emergency room visits and hospital admissions, in addition to 850,000 fewer missed days of work due to illness.

EPA administrator Lisa Jackson noted that:

With the help of existing technologies, we will be able to take reasonable steps that will provide dramatic protections to our children and loved ones, preventing premature deaths, heart attacks, and asthma attacks.”

The EDF analysis found that the 25 most polluting power plants release almost one third of the mercury from plants. Twenty of these plants are located less than 100 miles from large metropolitan areas, where thousands of people are at risk to increased exposure to mercury and other toxic emissions. These plants only generate 8 percent of our nation’s electricity, so most power plants will experience little impact from these rules.

Big utilities, dirty coal companies and their congressional allies claim that the EPA Utility Air Toxics Rule would place “expensive regulatory burdens” on power plants. Yet the EPA has determined that these protections are realistic and achievable, and will not overly burden utilities.

A group of large utilities debunked the claims of opponents of mercury reductions. Energy companies including PG&E Corporation, Exelon Corporation, Constellation Energy and others have issued a statement praised the new health protections.  These large power producers

believe the Toxics Rule can be achieved in a cost effectivemanner while maintaining the reliability of the electric system.

According to the Clean Energy Group, these rules come as a next step in the transition to cleaner electricity generation. The Edison Electric Institute found that without this rule, U.S utilities must make $80-$100 billion in capital investments annually to keep up with growing demand and modernize outdated infrastructure. The $110-$140 billion required to update plants in order to comply with the EPA’s new toxics regulations would comprise less than 10 percent of that total long term investment.

By establishing these regulations, the EPA is protecting our children, and ensuring the health and safety of American citizens all across the country.  By implementing available and cost effective improvements in existing coal fire power plants we can achieve nationwide benefits, while transitioning to cleaner, safer sources of energy.

If you would like to submit a public comment to the EPA concerning the new mercury and toxics rules, email with the subject line “Attention Docket No. EPA-HQ-OAR- 2009-0234.”  Further instructions can be found at or

By Emily Bischof, CAP Energy Team intern.

One Response to New EPA standards are good for Americans’ health

  1. BillD says:

    We really need regulation to cut down on mercury pollution and air pollution. Hopefully these regulations will tip utilities away from using coal for electricity. At least we can hope that this means no new coal fired plants.