After 20 Years Of Poisoned Babies, EPA Will Finally Cut Coal Industry’s Toxic Mercury Pollution

Long-delayed rules to limit toxins like mercury and arsenic from coal-burning power plants will be approved today, after twenty years of delay that protected coal utility profits at the expense of American health. The Los Angeles Times reports that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will finalize its mercury rule today, marking the end of an era of deliberate pollution despite the scientific knowledge that pregnant women and small children were being poisoned:

The Environmental Protection Agency is expected to approve a tough new rule on Friday to limit emissions of mercury, arsenic and other toxins from the country’s power plants, according to people with knowledge of the new standard. Though mercury is a known neurotoxin profoundly harmful to children and pregnant women, the air toxins rule has been more than 20 years in the making, repeatedly stymied because of objections from coal-burning utilities about the cost of installing pollution control equipment.

In 1990 the bipartisan legislation that amended the Clean Air Act ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to set standards for the emission of mercury, arsenic, and other toxic air pollution from power plants. Although a court decree mandated EPA standards by 2000, the rules were repeatedly delayed again. In 2006, the Bush administration released rules that were thrown out by the courts for failing to protect the public health. The health risks of mercury and arsenic are enormously well-documented. In the 21 years since the EPA was ordered to issue these rules, 17 states have independently acted to limit mercury emissions from power plants. Coal-fired power plants alone produce 772 million pounds of airborne toxins every year — 2.5 pounds’ worth for every American.

Even with this finalized Mercury and Air Toxics Standards rule, power plants will have years to comply. Upgrading power plants to cut air toxics is expected to create 31,000 construction jobs to 158,000 jobs installing pollution controls. “Jobs are created” when power companies are forced to clean up their plants, Mike Morris, CEO of American Electric Power has recognized.


Of course, the primary economic benefit of the mercury rule comes from its life-saving impact. Methylmercury from coal pollution accumulates in fish, poisoning pregnant women and small children. Mercury can harm children’s developing brains, including effects on memory, attention, language, and fine motor and visual spatial skills. Upgrades to the aged and dirty coal plants will also significantly reduce harmful particle pollution, preventing hundreds of thousands of illnesses and up to 17,000 premature deaths each year. “The ‘monetized’ value of these and certain other health benefits would amount to $55–146 billion per year,” the Economic Policy Institute states.