By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

Public health advocates and environmentalists praised the Obama Administration for adopting standards for air pollution to reduce mercury and other toxics released from power plants.

The Mercury and Air Toxics Standards for Power Plants, announced today by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “are long overdue” and will help reduce the amounts of mercury, lead, arsenic and other pollutants that affect human health, American Lung Association leaders said.

“Since toxic air pollution from power plants can make people sick and cut lives short, the new Mercury and Air Toxics Standards are a huge victory for public health,” said Albert A. Rizzo, MD, National Volunteer Chair of the American Lung Association, and pulmonary and critical care physician in Newark, Delaware. “The Lung Association expects all oil and coal-fired power plants to act now to protect all Americans, especially our children, from the health risks imposed by these dangerous air pollutants.”

Mercury from coal plants accounts for about half of the mercury emissions released into the atmosphere. It harms people by polluting the air and it settles into lakes and oceans, contributing to the contamination of fish, many of which are considered dangerous to consume because of they accumulate mercury in their flesh.

Mercury, arsenic, lead and dioxin from air pollution have been linked to a long list of health issues. Mercury and lead have been shown to affect the cognitive development of children and the development of fetuses. The other heavy metals and dioxin have been linked to cancer, cardiovascular disease and nervous system disruptions as well.

By the EPA’s calculus, the new standard will prevent 130,000 childhood asthma attacks and 11,000 premature deaths each year.

Despite the public health benefit, the coal industry has fought the standards, which will require them to clean up their emissions, but gives them three to four years to do so.

Only about 40 percent of the nation’s 600 power plants will be seriously affected by the new rules, because newer coal plants already have reduced, in whole or in part, the targeted emissions by using improved technology, according to the EPA. The newer coal plants meet or nearly meet the new standards because these rules have been on the drawing board for years, since Congress ordered them under the 1990 Clean Air Act.

Both sides of this decades-long debate agree that the new rules could force some aging plants, spread across the country in 40 states, to close because it would be too expensive to retrofit them. Other plants are expected to upgrade.

The coal industry opposed the standards, saying they will increase the cost of business, the price of electricity and could lead to electricity shortages.

American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity President and CEO Steve Miller  said today that “the EPA is out of touch with the hard reality facing American families and businesses” and fails to appreciate that the rule will “destroy jobs, raise the cost of energy and could even make electricity less reliable.”

Miller said that if after studying the new rule it is “as bad” as what the EPA proposed earlier, the coal industry will ask Congress to step in.

But outside of the fossil fuel industry, several business groups welcomed the higher standards. 

“Our experience has shown that the Clean Air Act yields substantial benefits to the economy and to businesses, and that these benefits consistently outweigh the costs of pollution reductions. We believe the finalization of MATS [Mercury and Air Toxics Standards] is a meaningful step towards economic recovery and growth,” said business leaders in a joint statement from the American Businesses for Clean Energy, American Sustainable Business Council, Ceres, Environmental Entrepreneurs, Main Street Alliance and the Small Business Majority.

Environmentalists say that new energy production, such as green solar and wind energy, could help replace lost capacity from coal plants that cannot be sufficiently updated, many of which are 40 or more years old anyway.

Those favoring the new pollution controls also note that along with newer coal plants, many other types of industry have successfully reduced their toxic emissions, suggesting that the coal industry can find a way where it’s feasible.

“Every other major industrial sector in America is already reducing mercury and other air toxins. Oil refineries, chemical plants, plastics companies, the iron and steel industries, heavy manufacturers—they’ve all been subject to air toxic standards for more than 10 years,” reports Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) in a blog  about today’s EPA ruling.

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