Toxic Air Pollution From Power Plants Drops 19 Percent; Congress Threatens Future Progress

by Jackie Weidman

Each year in the United States power plants expel 310 million pounds of toxic air pollution. Just 20 states are responsible 92 percent this pollution, the Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC) finds in their new report: “Toxic Power: How Power Plants Contaminate Our Air and States.” Kentucky, Ohio and Pennsylvania topped the charts, contributing over 35 percent of total U.S. emissions. (Click on the image to enlarge.)

At the same time, power plant pollution dropped 19 percent from 2009 to 2010. This decrease occurred because of two key factors: (1) many utilities switched from burning coal to natural gas and (2) several plants installed pollution controls in anticipation of new health protections from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

EPA estimates that each year these pollution reductions save up to $90 billion in health costs. They also prevent up to 540,000 missed work or sick days, and avoid tens of thousands of premature deaths, asthma cases, and hospital visits each year.


Toxic air pollution should continue to decline dramatically over the next several years due to EPA regulations. By 2015, EPA’s recently finalized Mercury and Air Toxics standards will reduce mercury pollution by 79 percent; and sulfur dioxide and acid gases by 63 and 95 percent, respectively.

However, Congress could delay progress as lawmakers do the bidding of Big Polluters and work to repeal these public health safeguards.

Both Senators from 8 of the “toxic 20” states — Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, and Virgina — recently supported a resolution from Senator Inhofe (R-OK) to repeal Mercury and Air Toxics Standards.

On the other hand, Senators from Michigan, Maryland, and Delaware stood up to protect public health and voted against repealing the rules. The remaining Senators from the top 20 toxic states are split.

“Children can’t choose whether to breathe, but Congress can choose whether the air they’re breathing is clean or dirty,” said Franz Matzner, NRDC associate director of Government Affairs.


Thanks to EPA regulations, millions of children and families are able to breathe easier. The Clean Air Act will continue to cut deadly pollution, saving tens of thousands of lives each year. But the coal industry isn’t giving up, and Senators will soon have to choose again whether they will stand for Big Polluters or stand with the health of the American people.

Jackie Weidman is a special assistant for energy policy at the Center for American Progress.