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EPA’s Proposed Standards Would Limit Mercury, Arsenic, and Other Air Toxics from Power Plants for First Time

By Climate Guest Contributor on August 14, 2011 at 8:54 am

"EPA’s Proposed Standards Would Limit Mercury, Arsenic, and Other Air Toxics from Power Plants for First Time"

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The coal-burning TransAlta plant near Centralia, WA.  AP Photo.

– A CAP cross-post

The Environmental Protection Agency took a critical step toward cleaner air on March 16, 2011, by proposing its air toxics standards for coal-fired power plants. The proposed rule would limit emissions of mercury, arsenic, and other air toxics from power plants for the first time.

These protections were called for in the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments, but they haven’t been implemented, and they are long overdue. Toxic mercury, arsenic, and other pollutants have been spewing uncontrolled from power plants even though we fully know how bad they are.

Unfortunately, recent attempts by House Republicans to handcuff the EPA are threatening both decades of public health progress and the further action we need to clean up the air, which will lessen the burden of asthma and other health problems. The EPA’s proposed air toxic standards and their other ongoing efforts should be defended both before Congress and in our public discourse.

To this end CAP’s sister organization, the Center for American Progress Action Fund, has helped lead a summer-long campaign urging Americans to submit their public comments to the EPA, calling for strong protection against harmful pollution. All told, over 800,000 Americans submitted comments to the EPA.

CAP’s official comment submission

Dear Administrator Jackson:

The Center for American Progress writes in support of strong rules for reducing airborne toxic pollution from power plants. Such rules will protect us from mercury, arsenic, acid gases, and 34 other dangerous chemicals that power plants have been spewing uncontrolled for decades. These rules are long overdue: Countless American lives have been exposed to illness and premature death that could have been prevented. We cannot afford further delay.

Clean air is vital for public health

The public health protections from this new rule are significant. They will prevent approximately 17,000 premature deaths, 120,000 asthma attacks, and 12,000 hospitalizations and emergency room visits every year. Seventeen states have already taken steps to reduce these harmful pollutants, and over 800,000 Americans have sent comments to the EPA in support of stronger protections.[1]

Coal-fired power plants emit 772 million pounds of airborne toxic chemicals into the sky every year—more than 2.5 pounds for every American man, woman, and child in this country.[2] Nationwide, particulate pollution from power plants is estimated to kill approximately 13,000 people a year.[3]

Power plants also are the largest domestic source of airborne mercury in the United States, a particularly dangerous neurotoxin.[4] This toxic metal, which is expelled into the air as coal and burned for electricity, is especially dangerous for young and developing children because it impairs brain development.

Mercury has been linked to birth defects, learning disabilities, delays in the development necessary for children to walk and talk, and in some cases even cerebral palsy. Recent studies suggest that at least 1 in 12—and as many as 1 in 6—American women of child-bearing age have enough mercury in their system to put their babies at risk in the womb or through nursing.[5]

In addition to mercury and arsenic (used commercially as a rat poison), power plants also emit lead, other heavy metals, dioxin, and acid gases. Even small amounts of these extremely harmful air pollutants are linked to diseases including cancer, heart disease, brain damage, asthma attacks, and even premature death.

People will continue to suffer without significant reductions in these pollutants. Expediency and strong reductions will save human lives and prevent costly illness.

Clean air is good for the economy

We’ve heard much conjecture by polluting industries and their allies in Congress that adoption of the new toxics rules will harm our economic growth and slow job creation. These special interests have used their deep pockets to convince lawmakers that they should be allowed to spew harmful pollution regardless of the human impact. They have time and time again used debate over budget deficits and unemployment as a point of leverage to ease restrictions and delay rulemaking. Many polluting industries have presented the American people with a false choice: clean air or economic growth.

The EPA’s thorough analysis disproves this false choice presented by polluters, and it asserts that stronger protections for public health will also net positive economic results.

Smarter rules based on peer-reviewed EPA science will prevent illnesses such as asthma attacks and other health and environmental impacts from burning coal, which cost this country upwards of $500 billion each year.[6] Fewer asthma attacks mean fewer hospitalizations and costly visits to the emergency room—an expense that is especially burdensome on families who lack health insurance.

This is of no small significance, as groups such as African Americans and Latinos, who have the highest rates of asthma in this country, are also the least likely to be insured compared to other ethnic groups in this country.[7]

Additionally, data from the 40-year history of clean air protections in the United States proves that less pollution in the air means a more efficient workforce and economy. According to EPA analysis, Americans have already gained $21.4 trillion in health and environmental benefits from clean air programs.[8] These protections have also saved 4.1 million lost work days and 31 million days in which Americans would have had to restrict activity due to air-pollution-related illness.[9]

These safeguards proposed by the new rules should also drive innovation and job creation by power companies as they devise new technologies and practices to reduce pollution in the most cost-effective manner possible.

A recent report by the Economic Policy Institute finds that the new regulations on mercury, arsenic, and other toxic air pollution from power plants will not slow economic recovery and would in fact increase job growth in coming years, leading to the creation of 28,000 to 158,000 jobs between now and 2015.[10] Likewise, a University of Massachusetts study found that together with the Clean Air Transport rule, which would reduce ozone and fine particle pollution, the air toxics rule will create 1.4 million jobs over the next five years.[11]

These studies are bolstered by real world experiences of power companies. Consider the case of Constellation Energy Group headquartered in Baltimore, Maryland. They recently completed the installation of a major air quality control system at one of their major coal facilities. Construction took 26 months, employing nearly 1,400 skilled workers. The new system is reducing harmful emissions in compliance with state and federal requirements, and it is already helping them achieve the other emission reductions that they anticipate will be required under the Toxics Rule.

Further, power plants can be cleaned up in an efficient and cost-effective manner. The argument by polluting special interests that these improvements will cause higher electricity rates for consumers or disturbance in electricity reliability is simply wrong. Numerous testimonials by power company CEOs prove that reducing these toxic emissions does not affect the economic health of these industries.

We know that prior to 1990 three industry sectors made up approximately two-thirds of total U.S. mercury emissions: medical waste incinerators, municipal waste combustors, and power plants. The first two of those sectors are now subject to stricter pollution standards and have reduced their mercury emissions by more than 95 percent. In addition, mercury standards for other industries, such as cement production and steel manufacturing, have reduced mercury emissions from a wide range of sources.

According to a 2010 data collection survey completed by the EPA nearly 60 percent of responding coal-fired electricity units already comply with EPA’s proposed mercury standard. A CAP analysis found that coal-fired power plants without pollution controls are more than 50 years old on average.

Plants in 17 states are already required to address their mercury pollution regardless of federal requirements. These measures vary in stringency, with some of them imposing more protective mercury emissions limits on coal-fired power plants than the EPA has proposed. Many of the power plants in these states have already installed the equipment necessary to reduce mercury pollution, though most state safeguards have yet to take effect. A CAP analysis of the coal-fired power plants in these 17 states found that more than half of their total electricity-generation capacity has pollution controls that can reduce mercury.

In a July 11 letter to congressional leaders, 36 energy companies from around the country noted that certainty of pollution reduction rules is critical for determining future investments. Delaying the air toxics rule will generate uncertainty among investors, as well as companies already preparing for compliance. This uncertainty will slow investments and economic recovery.

A similar letter to the editors of the Wall Street Journal by seven leading power company CEOs asserts that leveraging technology to clean up emissions from power plants and economic growth go hand in hand:

Contrary to the claims that the EPA’s agenda will have negative economic consequences, our companies’ experience [in] complying with air quality regulations demonstrates that regulations can yield important economic benefits, including job creation, while maintaining reliability.[14]

Numerous case studies—including one from Calpine, the largest independent power producer in the country—prove that industry is already taking the lead on reducing these harmful emissions and that the transition is both possible and economically viable for the industry.

Thaddeus Miller, executive vice president of Calpine, explains:

This is not a surprise, this is something we’ve all know about for 10 years, there’s yet another three years to get ready for it…the system is ready. We have more capacity than we need, and we can afford to have some of the capacity come offline.[15]

This message is echoed by Jim Rogers, the president and CEO of Duke Energy:

[T]he anticipation of more stringent environmental rules has long been part of our business plan. Over the past 10 years, we have spent $5 billion retrofitting existing units with updated emissions controls…Today, approximately 75 percent of our current coal generation capacity has scrubbers in operation. This will increase to approximately 90 percent once our fleet modernization program and related retirements are completed…We have really mitigated a lot of the risk and the cost associated with this program by the early steps that we took.

Yet some utilities are still unwilling to modernize. They use the threats of power plant closures and lost jobs as a tool to delay EPA’s proposal to require mercury reductions from coal-fired power plants. These outdated arguments are countered by the chorus of power companies who understand that the new mercury standards are achievable and good for business.

Finally, while cleaning up coal plants are an important first step in protecting public health, a real long-term solution must include policies to drastically reduce other pollutants—including particulates (soot) and carbon dioxide—from coal power plants. This can be achieved over time through investments in energy efficiency and expanded clean, renewable energy portfolio standards.

In the meantime, we commend EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson for her leadership in proposing these rules that have been delayed for decades at the expense of human health and economic innovation.

An overwhelming 69 percent of Americans polled by the American Lung Association believe that EPA scientists, rather than Congress, should set pollution standards. Likewise, 69 percent think the EPA should update Clean Air Act standards with stricter limits on air pollution.[16]

We join over 800,000 Americans, along with numerous public health, faith-based, social justice organizations, and industry groups to urge the EPA to finalize its proposed airborne toxic pollution standards, which would achieve significant pollution reductions that protect our children, families, and communities from mercury and other toxic air pollution.

Endnotes

[1] Bob Perciasepe, Deputy Administrator U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Testimony before the Subcommittee on Regulatory Affairs, Stimulus Oversight and Government Spending. July 26, 2011.

[2] American Lung Association, “American Lung Association Report Highlights Toxic Health Threat of Coal-fired Power Plants, Calls for EPA to Reduce Emissions and Save Lives” (2011).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Natural Resources Defense Council, “Mercury Contamination in Fish: a guide to staying healthy and fighting back” (2011).

[5] Sierra Club, “New Analysis Finds that Hispanics Face Disproportionate Health Threat from Coal Plant’s Toxic Mercury Pollution” (2011).

[6] Tim Tyler, “Full Cost of Coal $500 Billion/Year in U.S., Harvard Study Finds” (2011).

[7] U.S. Census, “People Without Health Insurance Coverage by Selected Characteristics: 2008 and 2009” (2010).

[8] U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “Benefits and Costs of the Clean Air Act” (2011).

[9] U.S. Environmental Protection Agency “Benefits and Costs of the Clean Air Act,” Press release, November 16, 1999, available at http://www.epa.gov/air/sect812/r-140.html.

[10] Economic Policy Institute, “News from EPI: Slow economic growth raising unemployment rate” (2011).

[11] Jams Heintz, Heidi Garrett-Peltier, and Ben Zipperer, “New Jobs – Cleaner Air” (University of Massachusetts, 2011).

[12] The Clean Energy Group, “The Electric Industry Can Comply with the Proposed Toxics Rule with Existing, Cost‐Effective Pollution Control Technologies and Compliance Will Not Compromise the Reliability of the Electric System,” Press release, March 25, 2011, available at http://www.thecleanenergygroup.com/documents/Toxic-Rule-Statement-Final.pdf.

[13] Letter from The Business Council for Sustainable Energy to The Honorable John Boehner, Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, Mitch McConnell, July 11, 2011.

[14] “We’re OK With the EPA’s New Air-Quality Regulations,” The Wall Street Journal, December 8, 2010.

[15] Thaddeus Miller, Interview with Carol Browner (Washington: Center for American Progress, June 21, 2011).

[16] American Lung Association, “American Lung Association Bipartisan Poll Shows Strong Public Support for Lifesaving Clean Air Act” (2011).

See also:

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