by Gina E. Wood and Leslie L. Simmons
Coal and oil-fired power plants release mercury, arsenic, other metals, acid gases, and particulates – all of which can harm people’s health. These pollutants are linked to cancer, IQ loss, heart disease, lung disease and premature death.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has taken steps to dramatically improve public health, the climate, and even the economy by proposing the Mercury and Utility Air Toxics Standards (Utility Air Toxics Rule). The proposed standards will reduce emissions of mercury, other toxic metals, hydrogen chloride and other acid gases, and organic air toxins like dioxin and furans – known human carcinogens. These standards are long overdue, and represent the first time that the EPA is requiring coal and oil-fired power plants to control their emissions of toxic air pollutants.
Recently, some opponents of the rule have gone so far as to claim that African Americans will be disproportionately impacted by its costs. These claims are unsubstantiated and fly in the face of what we know: that African Americans and other people of color are disproportionately harmed by air pollution where they live. None of the studies used to support claim of adverse economic impacts on African Americans actually evaluate the impacts of EPA’s regulations or policies, much less this specific regulation. Moreover, the statements of the groups opposing the EPA regulations fail to acknowledge the well-documented disproportionate impacts of dirty air and greenhouse gases on people of color. EPA has conducted analyses for all of the greenhouse gas and clean air regulations it has promulgated, and its analyses demonstrate that the economic impacts are minimal.
The New Rule Will Reduce Toxic Air Pollution and Save Lives
Per the EPA’s Regulatory Impact Analysis, the proposed “Utility Air Toxics Rule” will dramatically reduce toxic air pollution from our nation’s power plants and deliver significant benefits that will:
- Reduce the risk of mercury damage to children’s developing brains, which results in IQ loss and diminished ability to learn.
- Protect Americans from cancer and other health risks caused by other toxic air pollutants.
- Save thousands of lives each year by reducing the amount of dangerous particulates across the country. This includes neighborhoods near power plants and neighborhoods hundreds of miles away from the nearest power plant.
- Protect thousands of lakes and streams – and the fish that live there and the mammals and birds that eat them – from mercury and acid rain pollution.
- Provide employment for tens of thousands of American workers building, installing, and operating the equipment to reduce emissions of mercury, acid gases, and other toxic air pollutants.
Each year, the proposed rule would prevent serious health effects including 6,800-17,000 premature deaths, 11,000 heart attacks, 120,000 asthma attacks, and 850,000 missed work or “sick” days. Avoiding “sick days” saves companies and families money. It is particularly important for the millions of Americans whose jobs do not provide paid sick leave and who risk losing their jobs if they miss work too often. The proposed rule would also prevent 12,200 hospital admissions and emergency room visits, and 4,500 cases of chronic bronchitis each year.
While some in industry focus on the costs of this rule, any costs are far outweighed by the benefits. The value of the improvements to health alone total $59 billion to $140 billion each year. This means that for every dollar spent to reduce this pollution, society would get $5-$13 in health benefits.
The EPA will accept comments on the proposal until August 4, 2011. To learn how to submit a comment, see http://www.epa.gov/lawsregs/getinvolved.html. For more information about the Utility Air Toxics Rule, see http://www.epa.gov/ttn/atw/utility/utilitypg.html.
Source: EPA, “Reducing Toxic Pollution from Power Plants” Mar. 16, 2011.
Gina E. Wood is the Director of Policy and Planning and Deputy Director of the Health Policy Institute at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. She also works closely with the Joint Center’s Climate Change Initiative. More information on Ms. Wood and her work can be found at the Joint Center website.