Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson on Wednesday unveiled the nation’s first-ever national standards for mercury and other toxic air pollution from power plants, saying they will save 11,000 lives a year and save billions of dollars.
The sweeping regulations—mandated by Congress in 1990 and delayed by prolonged litigation, lobbying, and legislative battles—will require utilities to cut at least 90 percent of their emissions of mercury, a neurotoxin known to cause brain damage and other health problems, particularly in developing fetuses and young children.
“The Mercury and Air Toxics Standards will help protect millions of families and children from harmful and costly air pollution and provide the American people with health benefits that far outweigh the costs of compliance,” Jackson said.
President Obama weighed in via video message.Obama threw his support behind Jackson’s effort—albeit via video.
“For over two decades, emissions standards for our power plants, which are the dominate source of toxic pollution, were never put in place. That was wrong,” Obama said. “Today my administration is saying enough. We're announcing common sense, cost-effective standards to dramatically reduce harmful air pollution.”
Obama’s support for this rule is almost the polar opposite of his decision in September to shelve for at least two years EPA’s tougher smog standard. Jackson had also said that rule would help prevent respiratory diseases. Obama decided that since EPA was required by law to revisit the smog standard in two years anyways, the agency should not toughen the rule now.
EPA says the mercury rule will prevent up to 11,000 premature deaths and prevent thousands of respiratory illnesses, which could translate into $90 billion in health and economic benefits a year.
“EPA estimates that manufacturing, engineering, installing, and maintaining the pollution controls to meet these standards will provide employment for thousands, potentially including 46,000 short-term construction jobs and 8,000 long-term utility jobs,” according to the agency.
Critics are bound to take issue with those numbers, which ignore the likely job losses in the coal-utility sector. Indeed, utilities that burn coal, such as American Electric Power and Southern Company, will be affected the most since coal is the dirtiest fule used to generate electricity and accounts for 99 percent of the mercury pollution from the power sector. Coal is also the cheapest and most abundant fuel source, though, providing nearly 50 percent of the country’s electricity.
Consumer groups praised the new rules. “The health benefits of this rule are clear, and today’s announcement follows the example set by the Clean Air Act by protecting public health in a cost effective manner,” said Shannon Baker-Branstetter of Consumers Union.
"Exposure to air pollution and toxic chemicals can cause asthma and heart attacks, harm those suffering from respiratory illness, and in some cases lead to death,” said Alan Baker, interim executive director of the American Public Health Association. “Implementing these critically needed standards could mean the difference between a chronic debilitating, expensive illness or healthy life for hundreds of thousands of American children and adults.”