Full of Hot (and Toxic) Air: Big Polluters Try to Block Stronger Mercury Standards

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Over the past few years, I’ve worked closely with Latino environmental, health and business leaders across the country as part of Voces Verdes to call on Congress and the administration to do the right thing for people, our planet and our bottom lines. This coalition has come together organically around the recognition that we are greatly concerned about the dangers facing so many in our community and – whether we’re addressing these problems from a business or health perspective – we recognize the need to take action and encourage our government leaders to do the same.

Now we’ve turned our attention to EPA’s proposed Mercury and Air Toxics Rule. This standard would significantly cut toxic air pollution from power plants, a significant, and sometimes

life-threatening, problem for millions of Latinos nationwide.

According the American Lung Association, six of the top ten most polluted U.S. cities have Latino populations over 40%. Latino children are three times more likely than Non-Hispanic White children to live in U.S. counties with poor air quality. According to a 2004 study by the League of United Latin American Citizens, 39 percent of Latinos live within 30 miles of a power plant. For African Americans the number is a staggering 68 percent.

A Serious, Widespread, Uncontrolled Problem

Every year, more than 400 coal-fired power plants in 46 states across the country release over 386,000 tons of hazardous pollutants like arsenic, lead, mercury, dioxins and formaldehyde into the air we breathe. Many of these are chemicals are known to cause cancer. Others, like mercury, are potent neurotoxins that can significantly damage the brain. 

Coal-burning power plants are the major source of mercury pollution, a neurotoxin which can be especially dangerous for young children, nursing mothers and women of childbearing age. Mercury can cause death, cancer and brain damage, even in small amounts. Coal-fired power plants pump nearly 50 tons of mercury into our air every year, exposing millions of people to high levels of this potent neurotoxin.

In fact, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, a typical coal plant generates 170 pounds of mercury in a year. To put the number into perspective, just 1/70th of a teaspoon (far less than a pound) deposited on a 25-acre lake can make the fish unsafe to eat, since mercury bioaccumulates in the bodies of the fish. The amount of mercury pollution currently permitted is shocking, dangerous, and irresponsible.

Action is Long Overdue

In 1990, Congress first required EPA to clean up toxic air pollution from industries under amendments to the Clean Air Act. Ever since, coal-using electric utilities have deployed every trick in the book to delay new regulations. Now, according to a U.S. District Court’s ruling, the final rule for toxic air pollution must be completed by November 16, 2011. With lives at stake across the country, we cannot afford to delay any longer.

Scientists state that new air pollution standards should reduce mercury emissions from power plants burning coal and oil by 91%, acid gas pollution by 91%, direct particulate matter (PM) emissions by 30% and sulfur dioxide (SO2) emissions by 53%. These standards would save as many as 17,000 lives every year by 2015. (Read a great summary of the proposal and its impacts here).

Strong Standards Will Save Lives and Money

A new report by the National Academy of Sciences found the national cost of treating health damages from the country's 500 coal-fired power plants to be $62 billion each year. Not only would a  strong Mercury and Air Toxics Rule avoid these costs, it would also prevent up to 120,000 cases of childhood asthma symptoms and 11,000 cases of acute bronchitis among children every year. 4.7 million Hispanics have been diagnosed with asthma in their lifetime. Strong standards for toxics would allow Latinos to breathe easier – preventing the wheezing, suffering, and lost school and work days that come with this debilitating disease.

Even in just one Chicago community, home to the Fisk and Crawford power plants and a 70% Latino population, residents could avoid 42 deaths, 2,500 asthma attacks and 500 hospitalizations, according to a Harvard University study.

The Injustice is Striking

While hard working American families pay extraordinary costs in terms of illness, healthcare costs, and lost workdays, the coal industry and other big polluters continue to try to weaken the air pollution standards we so desperately need. Representative Ed Whitfield (R-KY) has confirmed that House Republicans plan to introduce legislation to delay mercury and air toxics standards and forgo saving up to 26,000 lives every year.

None of us should be forced to pay the price for allowing polluters to dump toxic pollutants in to our air. Our uninsured or underinsured should not have to choose between paying medical bills or living expenses, and workers should not have to risk losing their jobs to allow polluters free reign to dump toxic pollutants into our air. We, and all Americans, deserve better.