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Cutting Mercury Pollution, Saving Lives, Creating Jobs

By Rebecca Leber

"Cutting Mercury Pollution, Saving Lives, Creating Jobs"

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Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson announced today an important new rule that finally sets limits on mercury, arsenic, and other toxins released into our air. For 21 years, coal-fired power plants were allowed to unleash unlimited mercury and other toxic pollution, poisoning the air. Today’s rule requires power plants to update their pollution-control technology to keep 90 percent of mercury produced by burning coal from being released.

BIG WIN FOR CLEAN AIR: The Obama administration’s move to limit mercury pollution together with recently proposed fuel economy standards mark major steps toward cleaning our environment. CAP Distinguished Senior Fellow and former EPA administrator Carol Browner said the safeguards today “are preventative medicine—they will annually forestall thousands of premature deaths, hospitalizations, and respiratory ailments.” The EPA’s mercury rule is urgently needed, Pennsylvania Republican and Democrat state representatives wrote in an op-ed. “Any delays or weakening attacks on the Clean Air Act are simply bad for all of us, but especially for our kids.” Yet some utilities and the coal industry want at least four years before reducing this public health menace. But before the ink is even dry on the new mercury safeguards, House Republicans already plan to attack the Clean Air Act’s “problem areas” in the new year with legislation to follow, according to Energy and Power Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-KY).

THE HEALTH IMPACT: Mercury especially endangers children and pregnant women, damaging young brain development. But children in communities of color suffer most from a delay in cleaner air — African-American and Latino children are 60 percent more likely to have asthma attacks than whites. Nationwide, mercury pollution alone causes up to 11,000 premature deaths, 4,700 heart attacks, and 130,000 asthma attacks annually, while coal power plants produce 2.5 pounds worth of airborne toxins for every American each year. In dollars, the EPA estimated Americans will save up to $90 billion in health benefits annually — not to mention the jobs created by companies installing new pollution-control technology. The new air toxins and interstate air pollution controls combined is expected to save 46,000 lives every year, or prevent five deaths every hour.

THE LIGHTS WON’T GO OUT: Despite mercury’s dangerous effects, some coal-powered utilities have fought to delay and weaken these new safeguards. Coal defenders like Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have rallied around inaccurate assertions that the EPA rule is a threat to electric reliability because they claim it will force many existing power plants to close. An Associated Press survey of power plants has debunked this claim. AP could not find a single plant operator that solely blamed EPA rules for a plant closure. Instead, it found the average age of plants that could be mothballed is 51 years. A number of utilities executives agree there will be little impact on reliability as the industry moves to meet new standards. Energy companies including Constellation, Exelon, and PSEG have said the industry is well-positioned to achieve cleaner standards, while maintaining the electricity grid. Overall, the health benefits dwarf the overall $9.6 billion installation cost to the industry — $1 billion less than the EPA’s proposed air toxins rule. CEO of American Electric Power Mike Morris said that such investments create jobs, “no question about that.” For every dollar spent to reduce pollution from power plants, Americans will receive $3 to $9 in health benefits. And that should be a number to cheer about.

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