EPA Takes Power Plants to the Mat over Toxic Air Pollutants

Coal-Fired Plant from Shutterstock

If you ever want to see an Ecocentric writer get all worked up, just mention the nation’s aging power plants and the havoc they wreak on the environment and public health. As you know, we have devoted a series on the negative impacts that these old plants have on aquatic life. But the most obvious attack on the environment (and human health) is what comes belching out of the stack and into the air.

Power plants are the nation’s largest source of toxic air pollutants. Coal-fired power plants emit 50 percent of mercury emissions, 50 percent of acid gas emissions, and 25 percent of toxic metal emissions generated in the United States.  These pollutants from coal- and oil-fired power plants pose serious health threats to every American, including brain damage in newborn infants, cancer and cardiovascular, dermal, respiratory and immune system damage.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), mercury can harm children’s developing brains affecting memory, attention, language, and fine motor and visual spatial skills. Other toxic metals such as arsenic, chromium and nickel can cause cancer. Mercury and many of the other toxic pollutants also harm the environment and contaminate our nation’s lakes, streams and fish.

Despite the dangers they pose to our health and the natural world, there are no national limits on the amount of mercury and other toxins released from power plant smokestacks.  But now the EPA is proposing Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) for Power Plants to limit toxic pollution, keeping 91 percent of the mercury in coal from being released to the air. Harmful particle pollution will also be reduced, preventing hundreds of thousands of illnesses and up to 17,000 premature deaths each year. Reducing toxic power plant emissions will also prevent tens of thousands of heart attacks, bronchitis cases and asthma attacks. In short, the new MATS rule will save lives and protect millions of Americans from preventable disease.

EPA estimates that the value of the improvements to health alone will total $59 billion to $140 billion in 2016. This means that for every dollar spent to reduce pollution from power plants, the American people get $5 to $13 in health benefits. Now that’s an excellent return on investment that should make us all happy.

EPA wants to hear what you think about this new rule. Comments may be submitted by August 4th via www.regulations.gov (enter “EPA-HQ-OAR-2011-0044-0001” in the search bar).

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