21 Dec 2011

No Dirty Coal in Stockings This Year!

photo credit: Senor Codo/Flickr

If you are wishing for some good news out of Washington, here’s something: the Obama administration just issued tough new rules curbing mercury and other poisons emitted by coal-fired utilities this week. For the first time, explains Corbin Hiar on the website NJToday.net, all of America’s 150 oil-burning facilities and 1,500 coal-fired power plants will have to limit their emissions of mercury, lead, acid gases, and other air toxics.

For all of us who breathe and eat fish, this is something to cheer about. You see, coal-fired power plants spew 772 million pounds of airborne toxic chemicals into the sky every year — that’s more than 2.5 pounds for every American man, woman, and child. They are the “largest human-caused source of mercury emissions in the United States,” according to Senate testimony presented by Dr. Jerome Paulson of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Mercury causes severe developmental disabilities, deafness, and blindness in cases of prenatal and infant exposure. In adults, the chemical can lower fertility rates and increase the chance of heart disease. Though mercury can be air-borne, most of us are exposed to the chemical by way of fish. Why is that? After it leaves the smokestack, mercury falls back to earth, polluting lakes and streams, and accumulating in the fish that we like to eat.

The new rules will prevent 91 percent of the mercury in coal, and much of the soot, from entering the air in the first place, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The rules would also result in slashed emissions of lead, which can lead to learning disabilities in children as well as organ failure; arsenic, a carcinogen, and millions of pounds of “acid gases” that can irritate the skin, eyes, and breathing passageways.

The EPA projects that once the air toxics safeguards are implemented in 2016, the pollution reductions will have annual benefits that include up to 17,000 fewer premature mortalities, 4,300 fewer cases of chronic bronchitis, 10,000 fewer non-fatal heart attacks, and 12,000 fewer hospitalizations. All told, estimates the EPA, the net economic benefit of the air toxics rule will be between $48 billion and $130 billion in 2016 alone. That would more than offset the costs to the utilities of meeting the new rules, which the agency puts at about $10.6 billion, mainly for the installation of the control equipment known as scrubbers.

This favorable cost-benefit comparison hasn’t stopped some utilities from claiming that they will be unable to meet the three-year deadline for compliance. Others however, such as the New Jersey-based Public Service Enterprise Group and the Illinois-based Exelon told the Washington Post that they would be able to meet the new standards easily and have already spent hundreds of millions of dollars on plant upgrades in anticipation of the rules being issued.

In fact, according to the Center for American Progress, 17 states now require power plants to address their mercury pollution and many plants have installed or have under construction the pollution-control technologies necessary to meet the EPA’s new rules.

There is no question, in other words, that safeguarding our health is both technologically achievable and cost-effective. Isn’t clean air something we all deserve this holiday?