The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has issued the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, the first national standards to protect American families from power plant emissions of mercury and toxic air pollution like arsenic, acid gas, nickel, selenium, and cyanide. The standards will slash emissions of these dangerous pollutants by relying on widely available, proven pollution controls that are already in use at more than half of the nation’s coal-fired power plants.
Power plants are the largest remaining source of several toxic air pollutants, including mercury, arsenic, cyanide, and a range of other dangerous pollutants, and are responsible for half of the mercury and over 75 percent of the acid gas emissions in the United States.
Christmas is only a couple of days away, and this week the Obama administration delivered a last-minute Christmas present to all of us, one that’s been 20 years in the making. On Wednesday, following a tortured history, the EPA finally released new standards that sharply reduce the emissions of mercury and other airborne toxins from power plants….
The new standards for airborne toxins are expensive: they’ll cost upwards of $10 billion annually and will require dozens of old coal-fired power plants to shut down….So that’s the downside: $10 billion annually in costs and a difficult but manageable shutdown of obsolete power plants. And the upsides are enormous. Here’s the EPA’s estimate:
The total health and economic benefits of this standard are estimated to be as much as $90 billion annually….Combined, the two rules are estimated to prevent up to 46,000 premature deaths, 540,000 asthma attacks among children, 24,500 emergency room visits and hospital admissions. The two programs are an investment in public health that will provide a total of up to $380 billion in return to American families in the form of longer, healthier lives and reduced health care costs.
Much of this is due to reductions in particulate matter, not mercury, which suggests that, if anything, the EPA may be underestimating the benefits of the new rules. As Michael Livermore points out, mercury is a dangerous neurotoxin for small children, and the EPA’s analysis of that danger is limited to quantifying lost future earnings due to lower IQ. But even a grinch wouldn’t pretend that the cost of this kind of neurological damage is limited to lower wages. “There are,” says Livermore, “also risks of cognitive and social defects, negative autoimmune effects, genetic effects, and heart attacks that are not quantified.”
The point that strikes me most, however, is that this shows that it matters who holds the White House. You can complain about Obama’s lack of a strong progressive agenda, which I sometimes do, or wonder what good it is to hold the White House when the other side blocks every attempt to do good through legislation. But mercury regulation would not have happened if John McCain were president.