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On Dec. 21, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released the first-ever federal protections reducing toxic pollutants, primarily mercury, produced by power plants.
This is a major victory for all Americans, and one for which the Sierra Club and other environmental organizations have been fighting for years. An assessment of mercury was required by the Clean Air Act amendments of 1990; so it has taken over 20 years to implement the law.
Evidence shows that mercury, which is a neurotoxin, is damaging to public health. A study in Environmental Health Perspectives in 2005 found that 637,000 babies were born each year with significant amounts of mercury in their bloodstream, with about two-thirds suffering IQ loss. The authors estimated that the lost economic productivity due to decreased intelligence came to about $8.7 billion per year, with $1.3 billion of that attributable to power plants. Other pollutants covered by the new rule, including dioxin, can cause cancer, premature death, heart disease and asthma. The EPA estimates that the regulation will produce $37 billion to $90 billion in health benefits by 2016 (compared with clean-up costs of about $9.6 billion).
According to estimates,the EPA protections prevent up to 11,000 premature deaths, 4,700 heart attacks, and 130,000 asthma attacks each year, as well as almost 3,000 cases of chronic bronchitis yearly. Emergency room visits will drop by almost 6,000!
The original Clean Air Act “grandfathered” in dozens of existing coal plants back in 1977, on the assumption that they were nearing the end of their lives and would be shut soon anyway.
But they weren’t.
There are still dozens of coal plants in the U.S. that don’t meet the pollution standards in the original 1970 Clean Air Act, much less the 1990 amendments. The new regulations will finally force these old and inefficient plants to clean up or, more likely, shut down.
Power plants generally have up to four years to comply, although waivers can be granted in individual cases to ensure that the lights stay on.
The EPA estimated that plants forced to close provide less than one-half of 1 percent of the nation’s generating capacity.
So how will this ruling affect coal plants in New Mexico?
In 2005, the Sierra Club, the Grand Canyon Trust, the New Mexico Environment Department and the New Mexico attorney general won a consent decree that required PNM to make significant pollution reductions in several pollutants at the San Juan Generating Station.
The plant’s emissions are now well below the EPA limits.
Arizona Public Service, which operates the Four Corners Power Plant and owns a significant portion of it has proposed to the EPA that it close units 1-3, which are older and very bad from a mercury-pollution perspective. The other two units, 4 and 5, will continue to operate. Their mercury emissions are much better than units 1-3 and will probably require minimal investments in new technology to meet the new limits.
Despite the frequently heard argument that “regulations stifle industry” this is a good example of the value of and need for sensible regulation. The power industry has been forcing us to pay medical bills for health problems that power plants have caused, and now we will pay less because of the EPA.
And the cost to the industry is far less than the overall savings to society.
Mark Jones represents the Pajarito Group of the