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Human health v. economic health

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Emilene Ostlind | Mar 21, 2011 05:30 PM

Twenty years after amendments to the Clean Air Act authorized the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate additional toxic emissions from coal-fired power plants, the agency is finally flexing its muscle. New rules proposed this month would cut mercury emissions along with other dangerous metals like arsenic, chromium and nickel and particulate matter from oil- and coal-fired power plants. The EPA cites tremendous health benefits -- and the substantial associated monetary savings -- from limiting these dangerous emissions, but industry proponents and many Republican lawmakers argue that the rules would cripple an already limping economy.Coal-fired power plant by Ken Lund

According to the EPA (pdf), coal-fired powered power plants are the largest source of mercury, which settles into water, accumulates in plants and animals and causes birth defects if pregnant women eat contaminated fish and seafood. In addition, smog and other air pollution from power plants trigger asthma, bronchitis and even heart conditions.

It’s the responsibility of the EPA, according to the Clean Air Act, to regulate these emissions in order to protect public health. To date, though, the EPA has failed to regulate emissions from power plants, first by simply omitting power plants from a list of industries to be regulated and then by delaying and sidestepping the obligations. Then in February 2008, the U.S. Court of Appeals said the EPA broke the law by not using the Clean Air Act to reduce toxic air pollution from coal-fired power plants.

The agency's new rules, finally introduced on March 16 will eliminate thousands of premature deaths, hospital visits and heart attacks while creating 40,000 short-term and permanent jobs. The new standards would affect about 525 power plants at an estimated cost of $10.9 billion per year by 2016, the date by which the plants have to be in compliance.

This is just one of several new EPA rules intended to help clean the air. The agency has imposed mercury emission limits on cement plants, proposed lowering the allowable amount of ground-level ozone and is preparing to regulate greenhouse gases including carbon dioxide. These moves are drawing the ire of energy industry lobbyists and political friends. At least two Republican Senators have introduced bills (see Sen. John Barrasso's, R-Wyo., "Defending America's Affordable Energy and Jobs Act" and Sen. James Inhofe's, R-Okla., "Energy Tax Prevention Act") to block the EPA's authority to regulate greenhouse gases. And in another intriguing scuffle, Sen. Inhofe introduced a bill (subscription required) on March 17 that would require a new study to check the numbers in an EPA report that shows health benefits achieved by meeting the Clean Air Act requirements will add up to $2 trillion per year by 2020 while only costing $65 billion to achieve.

Others accept the EPA's assessment that the benefits of the regulations outweigh the costs. "Dirty air makes children sick, that's the long and short of it," said Marion Burton, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics when EPA Administration Lisa Jackson announced the new rules for power plants. "If you think it's expensive to install a scrubber, you should see how much it costs to treat a child born with a birth defect that was preventable."

Emilene Ostlind holds an editorial fellowship at High Country News.

Image of Cholla Power Plant near Joseph City, Ariz., courtesy Flickr user Ken Lund.

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