New EPA Mercury Rules Are a Bona Fide Big Deal

by David Roberts, cross-posted from Grist

Wednesday, at long last, the EPA unveiled its new rule covering mercury and other toxic emissions from coal- and oil-fired power plants.

Anyone who pays attention to green news will have spent the last two years hearing a torrent of stories about EPA rules and the political fights over them. It can get tedious. After a certain point even my eyes glaze over, and I’m paid to follow this stuff.

But this one is a Big Deal. It’s worth lifting our heads out of the news cycle and taking a moment to appreciate that history is being made. Finally controlling mercury and toxics will be an advance on par with getting lead out of gasoline. It will save save tens of thousands of lives every year and prevent birth defects, learning disabilities, and respiratory diseases. It will make America a more decent, just, and humane place to live.

A couple of background facts to contextualize what the new rule means:

First, remember that the original Clean Air Act “grandfathered” in dozens of existing coal plants back in 1977, on the assumption that they were nearing the end of their lives and would be shut soon anyway. Well, funny story … they never shut down! There are still dozens of coal plants in the U.S. that don’t meet the pollution standards in the original 1970 Clean Air Act, much less the 1990 amendments. These old, filthy jalopies from the early 20th century, mostly along the eastern seaboard and scattered around the Midwest, are responsible for a vastly disproportionate amount of the air pollution generated by the electricity sector in America, including most of the mercury. They have been environmentalists’ bĂȘte noire for over 30 years now.

Second, mercury rules get directly at these plants in a way no other rules have. There’s no trading system for mercury like there is for SO2 (the Bush administration tried to set one up, but the court struck it down). There are no short-cuts either. Every plant that’s out of compliance has to install the “maximum available control technology.” There is some flexibility — more than industry admits — but there’s no getting around the fact that this is going to be an expensive rule. It’s going to kick off a huge wave of coal-plant retirements and investments in pollution-control technology. That is, despite what conservatives say, a good thing, since the public-health benefits will be far greater than the costs. Every country on earth is modernizing its electric fleet. Even China’s ahead of us. These crappy old plants are an embarrassment and good riddance to them.

Third, this has been a long time coming. (Nicholas Bianco has some good history here.) An assessment of mercury was part of the Clean Air Act amendments of 1990. EPA stalled and stalled, got sued, and finally did the assessment. Sure enough, as had been known for years, they found mercury is harmful to public health. Then more stalling and more stalling until the Bush administration’s malformed 2004 proposal, which instantly got caught up in (and struck down by) the courts. So when the mercury rule finally goes into effect in 2014, 24 years will have passed since Congress said mercury needs regulating. It’s been a fight for enviros every step of the way.

So anyway, this is an historic day and a real step forward for the forces of civilization. It’s the beginning of the end of one of the last of the old-school, 20th-century air pollution problems. (Polluters and their rented conservatives will try to kick up dust about this, but check out this letter to Congress [PDF] from a group of health scientists, which says “exposure to mercury in any form places a heavy burden on the biochemical machinery within cells of all living organisms.”) Long after everyone has forgotten who “won the morning” in the fight over these rules, or what effect they had on Obama’s electoral chances, the rule’s legacy will live on in a healthier, happier American people.

David Roberts is a staff writer for Grist. You can follow his Twitter feed at This piece was originally published at Grist.

8 Responses to New EPA Mercury Rules Are a Bona Fide Big Deal

  1. CW says:

    Wow, in VERY approximate terms, our society took:

    – a month or so to bailout the banks;

    – a year or so to invade Iraq; and,

    – a generation or so to put mercury/toxics laws on coal plants*.

    (* the 2012 election is near … might they be delayed even longer?)

  2. Wes Rolley says:

    It’s about time. Still, you know that this will be an election issue for Republicans… all this “Socialist” regulation and it’s high cost. They should read read Milton Friedman regarding “neighborhood effects.”

    However, we never hear about the real costs of non-regulation. Two economists at California State University – Fullerton have done studies that continue to show just how much economic damage is caused by poor air quality in California. The most recent (November, 2008) is headlined “Dirty Air Costs California Economy $28 Billion Annually”. I don’t know about you, but as a Californian, I know that some of the health care cost is being carried by the tax payers while government could sorely use that money for education.

    Progressives need to start making the economic case for increased regulation and not allow the anti-regulation pols to own this issue.

    Study is found here:

  3. Start Loving says:

    Joseph, your work is immensely important, tho by implying, as your work centrally does, that we have an ‘information’ problem, and not a reader ‘courage,’ a reader ‘action’ problem, you do us great harm, and in this you are joined by all the writers and ‘leaders,’ with the possible exception of some in Greenpeace, and Sea Shepherds. Please think about this. We haven’t much time left.

    But your information is massively important to those of us that are trying to keep our bodies in the way of the harm.

    My point: The ‘news’ item this post focuses on is indeed momentous it seems to me, yet it was first published generally days ago as I recall, so I wondered about my own initial judgment as to its significance when I didn’t see you write of it right away. Please consider that it is important for you to immediately comment on the major events, or by omission, you make a comment you may not intend on making.

  4. Good article, on a very significant development which has not gotten the attention it deserves. The health effects of mercury emissions are not disputable. Availability of control technology, however, has not been sufficiently examined. Mixing chemicals with smokestack emissions is not a scalable solution. Activated carbon or fly ash injection to adsorb the tiny amounts of mercury vapor is equally impractical. Where is the research being done in the federal government on technology to comply with the rule, and what are they studying? Crematoria, which vaporize the mercury amalgam used in old dental work, are a large contributor to the problem.

  5. Joe Romm says:

    Many of CP’s readers are leaders in taking action, like Bill McKibben. I have tried to encourage that and create a space where people can share info.

    CP wrote about mercury when they came out here. But we had written over a half dozen posts before then on their importance.

  6. David B. Benson says:

    Simply shut down the old coal burners.

  7. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Yep, they took no time to rescue the banksters, (who are right back running the rackets and paying their larcenous ‘bonuses’), and a lazy 29 trillion to keep them afloat-temporarily. Imagine what 29 trillion would do to cure the planet’s ecological crises. Or, say 1%, a not inconsiderable 290 billion. It shows where the robopaths’ priorities lie.

  8. CW says:

    My apologies for the negativity. I’m usually a big proponent of focusing on the positive.

    I hope it’s a sign of a wave of good news to come.