Fighting to Protect American Families from Mercury Pollution

In December 2011, President Obama was proud to announce that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had finalized the first-ever national standards to reduce mercury, arsenic, and other toxic air pollution from power plants. It was a watershed moment in the Administration’s ongoing efforts to protect the health of American families and the environment, through sensible and achievable standards that rely on technologies already deployed by industry.

The public health benefits associated with the Administration’s Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) are enormous. By reducing emissions of toxic pollutants that lead to neurological damage, cancer, respiratory illnesses, and other serious health issues, these standards will benefit millions of people across the country. In fact, the total health and economic benefits to society could reach $90 billion each year.

In spite of these benefits – and the long history of bipartisan support to limit toxic air emissions from the nation’s largest polluters – Senator Inhofe is leading the charge to block these critical standards. And here’s what makes the stakes even higher: if these efforts are successful, the EPA could be prevented from ever limiting mercury and other toxic air pollution from power plants in the future – despite the fact that this requirement was initially signed into law in 1990 by President George H.W. Bush.

Rarely does a single vote in Congress have the potential to undermine public health and the environment in such a profound and blatant way. For that reason, it’s important to cut through all of the misinformation.

Here are the facts about the Obama Administration’s Mercury and Air Toxics Standards:

1. Blocking these standards would represent a major step backwards for public health and the environment.

Air toxics can have a range of serious adverse effects, including various cancers and respiratory, neurological, developmental, and reproductive problems. Mercury exposure is a particular concern for women of childbearing age, babies that were exposed in utero, and young children, because studies have shown that high levels of mercury can cause damage to developing nervous systems. This damage can impair children’s ability to think and learn. Mercury emissions also damage the environment and pollute our nation's lakes, streams, and fish.

Without these standards, power plants will keep pumping hundreds of thousands of tons of toxic air pollutants, including mercury, into the air – even though the technology to stop this pollution is widely available and affordable. The consequences for public health would be severe. Starting in 2016, these standards are slated to save thousands of lives a year – benefits that won’t be achieved if the resolution passes – including:

  • 4,200 to 11,000 additional premature deaths;
  • 4,700 heart attacks;
  • 130,000 cases of childhood asthma symptoms;
  • 6,300 cases of acute bronchitis among children;
  • 5,700 emergency room visits and hospital admissions;
  • 540,000 days of missed work due to respiratory illness. 

2. These standards will provide the power sector with ample time and flexibility to comply, and some in industry have made clear that undoing them will actually lead to greater uncertainty.

Based on significant input and data from the electric power industry and other stakeholders, the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards set achievable limits for mercury, acid gases, and other toxic air pollution. By installing readily-available and cost-effective pollution control equipment, power plants will cut pollution dramatically in every state across the country.

Plants will have up to four years – until April 2016 – to meet the standards, which provides ample time for compliance, according to analysis by the Department of Energy and other non-partisan reports.

While the industry as a whole is on track to meet the standards, even more time will be available in cases where it is needed to ensure reliability. For example, EPA has set out a clear pathway to compliance for any reliability-critical units that need additional time. This pathway would allow qualifying facilities to receive an additional year to come into compliance, beyond the four years mentioned above – for a total of five years. This is two years longer than what EPA’s analysis indicates is necessary for most power plants.

Industry has already made clear that undoing these sensible and achievable standards will increase uncertainty. For example, one group of electric power companies recently said that rolling back these standards would “create significant business uncertainty, undermining the investments already made and the planning underway by many in the electric sector to date.”

In addition, consumer electricity prices are expected to remain well within their historical range, and below 1990 levels, during and after the implementation of these standards.  

3. These standards will drive investments in American-made pollution control technology and create jobs.

Since the standards were finalized, the power sector has moved into action. Orders are already being placed for pollution control technology to improve the performance of our nation’s power plants. 

As a result of those orders, tens of thousands of American workers will be hired to build, install, and operate the equipment needed to reduce harmful air pollution. If this initiative were to pass Congress, it would put the brakes on these new jobs and impose uncertainty on industry that will impede resource and investment planning for years to come.

4. History shows that we can protect public health and grow our economy at the same time.

Since the Clean Air Act (CAA) was enacted in 1970 and amended in 1977 and 1990, each time with strong bipartisan support, it has improved the Nation's air quality and protected public health. Since 1970, the economy has grown over 200 percent while emissions of key pollutants have decreased more than 70 percent. More than forty years of clean air regulation has shown that a strong economy and strong environmental and public health protection go hand-in-hand.

President Obama strongly opposes this effort to block vital public health protections and will continue to fight for clean air and healthier communities. That’s why – if it landed on his desk – the President’s senior advisors would recommend a veto of this resolution. We have the ability to make long-overdue progress in cleaning up pollution and to give our children healthier lives, and there is no excuse to move backwards now.

Related Topics: Energy and Environment
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