View of a Healthier Future

Editor's Note: Howard A. Learner is President and Executive Director of the Environmental Law and Policy Center based in Chicago, IL.

Recently the Environmental Law & Policy Center (ELPC) and a group of Chicago-area public health and environmental leaders sat down with Chair Nancy Sutley and Representative Danny Davis (IL-7) to discuss the Administration's work to protect clean air, the Great Lakes and our environment. From the ELPC's office in downtown Chicago where the meeting was held, we have a view of the Chicago River, the blue-green waters of Lake Michigan, and the smokestacks of an old coal plant along the shoreline on the Illinois/Indiana border.

Many Midwest coal plants were built back in the Eisenhower and Kennedy years, and have not yet been retrofitted with modern pollution control equipment. These plants continue to emit large amounts of pollutants that harm public health. In particular, coal plants are the largest source of mercury pollution in the Great Lakes. Public health officials have issued "mercury advisories" for almost every river, lake and stream in the Midwest/Great Lakes states. It's become the reality that people are warned not to eat the fish they catch.

Mercury is a neurotoxin that, when ingested by pregnant women who eat contaminated fish, enters the bloodstream, crosses the placental barrier and impairs fetal brain development, thereby causing mental and physical harms. Installing modern and widely-available pollution control technologies can reduce more than 90% of the mercury pollution that is harming both children's health and our environment. 

At our meeting, Chair Sutley discussed the importance of EPA's Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, issued last week, that provide both economic and environmental benefits while protecting public health and the Great Lakes. These are the first national standards to require use of modern control technologies to reduce mercury, arsenic, lead, hydrochloric acid and other hazardous air pollutants from coal plants. These standards were called for by the Clean Air Act Amendments more than 20 years ago and level the playing field for the many utilities that have already invested in modern mercury pollution control technologies. 

In 2006 the Illinois Pollution Control Board adopted mercury pollution standards of its own, which required all coal plants to install technologies to reduce mercury pollution by 90% or more by 2009 and 2013. As expected, some coal plant owners made the same overblown arguments about reliability threats, costs and so forth that we are now hearing again. What then happened in Illinois? The coal plant owners complied, mercury pollution dropped significantly, the lights stayed on, utility rates didn't go up, and there was no a wave of plants shutting down. Most importantly, the health and safety of our children was protected. 

A broad coalition of medical, public health, outdoor recreation, environmental, faith-based and community organizations have come together to support the Administration's adoption of the EPA Mercury and Air Toxics Standards. Implementing these pollution reduction standards are proven to improve public health, create new jobs, drive technological innovations and transition our nation to a cleaner energy future. 

Simply put, it's time to move forward with these common sense standards to protect children's health and our rivers and Great Lakes for all.

Howard A. Learner is President and Executive Director of the Environmental Law and Policy Center based in Chicago, IL

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