After decades of spoiling our waterways and harming public health, unchecked mercury pollution from oil and coal burning power plants may finally be coming to an end. This year, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed the first national standards to slash mercury and other toxic emissions from fossil-fuel burning power plants. The proposed toxics rule would require power plant operators to install equipment to reduce mercury emissions by 91 percent in just four years. The reduction in mercury pollution and other toxic pollutants will undoubtedly provide tremendous benefits to public health, wildlife and our environment. According to the EPA, for every dollar spent on reducing toxic pollution, Americans will save between $5 -$13 in health costs.
Nationwide, hundreds of coal and oil power plants have not installed adequate pollution control equipment, despite the fact that this technology is widely available and proven effective. Fossil-fuel burning power plants are the largest contributors to mercury pollution in the United States. Mercury is a toxic heavy metal that reacts with water to create methylmercury- a dangerous organic compound with a bio-accumulative property, meaning that is absorbed by live tissue and never fully leaves the body. The methylmercury works its way up the food chain until it is ultimately consumed by humans (most commonly through the consumption of contaminated seafood). Current EPA estimates show that more than 300,000 newborns in the U.S. are born with unsafe levels of mercury in their system every year. Mercury is a neurotoxin, adversely impacting our children’s ability to walk, talk, and learn. In addition, the EPA proposed rule will significantly reduce emissions of arsenic, chromium, and nickel; which are suspected or known to cause cancer and other serious diseases. Despite the fact that it is not disputed in the international scientific community that toxic mercury and these other heavy metals harm our children, wildlife and the public; the fossil-fuel burning industry continues to aggressively fight common sense regulations to protect public health and our environment.
Connecticut is adversely impacted by mid-western power plants that have yet to upgrade. Their emissions travel to the east and are deposited in our lakes, estuaries, rivers and lands. The CT Dept. of Public Health has issued freshwater fish advisories advising women and children to limit their consumption of fish from over a dozen rivers and lakes statewide, due to significant levels of mercury in every major freshwater system in CT. Birds and mammals that eat fish are showing effects from mercury poisoning, such as behavioral and reproductive changes.
The fight against installing technology that protects public health and the environment is not new. The fossil-fuel industry has fought against similar pollution controls designed to stop acid rain since the federal government began regulating acid rain pollutants in 1990. Industry claims of exorbitant costs, disruptions in the flow of energy, and massive job losses have gone unfounded. Industry continues to use the same old tired and false mantra of pitting jobs against the environment. In fact, federal efforts to fight acid rain are being implemented cost effectively while providing cleaner air to 240 million Americans, bringing many lakes back to life, and benefiting wildlife and local economies.
The EPA’s proposed toxics rule will substantially benefit our nation. The EPA estimates the rule will annually avoid up to 17,000 premature deaths, 11,000 heart attacks, 120,000 asthma attacks, and 12,200 hospital and emergency room visits. The Economic Policy Institute published a briefing paper that estimated the toxics rule would create 150,000 construction and utility jobs related to the installation and maintenance of new facilities.
While the benefits of reducing toxic air pollution are numerous, the most compelling is the debilitating impact mercury pollution has on our youth and developing fetuses. The EPA should adopt strict limitations on toxic air pollutants from fossil-fuel burning power plants, because nothing is more essential than protecting the development and the safety of our future generations.
Louis Burch is the Connecticut Program Coordinator for Citizens Campaign for the Environment. He is a resident of New Haven, CT, and has been with the organization since January of 2008.