The Deadly Price of Delay

power plant emissions of SO2.jpg

What’s a lot more delay when you’ve already been waiting twenty-two years?

Tomorrow, Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) will bring his Congressional Review Act (CRA) resolution (S.J. Res. 37 [pdf]) to void EPA’s Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) [pdf] to the floor of the Senate for a vote. EPA’s MATS for the first time set national limits on power plant toxic air pollution such as neurotoxic mercury, arsenic, lead, acid gases, and cancer-causing dioxins. Inhofe’s resolution is an irresponsible attack on these standards and on our right to breathe clean air.

So let’s take a look at the CRA resolution from a different angle - what would more delay mean in terms of tons of air pollution? And how much pollution has the American public already been exposed to while we wait for toxic air pollution standards for power plants?

In short, years of industry delay and Bush Administration foot-dragging and law-breaking have brought us to where we are today – power plants have been allowed to emit millions and millions of tons of dangerous air pollution while the American people continue to wait for national limits on mercury and other air toxins.

And Senator Inhofe’s CRA wants to kick the proverbial toxic air pollution can even further down the road – his resolution, were it successful, could mean no meaningful standards for mercury or any other air toxin from power plants, the nation’s largest source of industrial toxic air pollution. 

So exactly how much pollution have we all suffered so far as a result of just eight years* of delay of these standards?

As the chart below shows, the American public has been exposed to 11.2 million more tons of sulfur dioxide pollution alone compared to the pollution levels allowed if power plant toxic air pollution standards had been instituted in 2007.**


More sulfur dioxide from power plants means more asthma attacks and more children going to the emergency room. SO2 also combines with other pollution to form small particles (so-called “PM2.5”) that, as EPA notes, “penetrate deeply into sensitive parts of the lungs and can cause or worsen respiratory disease, such as emphysema and bronchitis, and can aggravate existing heart disease, leading to increased hospital admissions and premature death.”

Sulfur dioxide is not a toxic air pollutant, but these enormous SO2 reductions as a result of the MATS are critical markers of the thousands of lives that will be saved as a result of EPA’s standards [pdf]. Some of the fine particles that SO2 combines with include particles of lead and arsenic and other toxic air pollution. So rules aimed at reducing these air toxins employ a number of commonly used pollution control devices that will also necessarily reduce PM2.5 pollution and SO2 pollution that does not consist of air toxins (e.g., sulfates). This air pollution is still very harmful due to how it affects our respiratory and cardio-pulmonary abilities, it’s just not toxic.

Industry lobbyists have resorted to attacking the PM2.5 reductions achieved by EPA’s Mercury and Air Toxics Standards since not all of the PM2.5 pollution that the standards reduce is toxic. But again, it’s technologically impossible to reduce toxic air pollution such as arsenic, lead and acid gases without also reducing the other PM2.5 pollution that will prevent thousands of premature deaths every year [pdf].

And what about mercury?

Power plants are the nation’s largest source of mercury pollution, accounting for more than half of the nation’s manmade emissions of mercury. Because national standards to reduce power plant emissions of mercury were not instituted in 2007, power plants emitted 320,000 additional pounds of neurotoxic mercury pollution from 2007 until today.***


power plant emissions of mercury.jpg

The mercury reductions achieved by the MATS rule are some of the most important achievements for these standards. Mercury is a dangerous neurotoxin that harms the developing brains of children and fetuses, causing learning disabilities and delayed development. And mercury pollution doesn’t just impact children. In adults, mercury can “cause memory loss, tremors, vision loss and numbness of the fingers and toes.”

It doesn’t seem believable that the largest manmade sources of a known brain poison continue to spew this pollution totally unregulated by any national standards.

Perhaps even more unbelievable is the fact that still, power companies and their industry lobbyists continue to oppose new standards, and try to say that EPA’s MATS will deliver “few real benefits,” or that power plants somehow need “more time” [pdf] to comply with toxic air pollution standards.

And most disturbing of all is that some in Congress [pdf] actually side with these power companies.

Senator Inhofe’s resolution is a prime example of this. More delay would just mean more pollution, more asthma attacks, and more avoidable deaths. However, each year of delay will mean [pdf] thousands more tons of dangerous air pollution, and if the previous eight years of delay teaches us anything, it’s that Americans have waited long enough for these health safeguards.


*We’ve calculated eight years of additional pollution starting in 2007. If the original terms of the NRDC/EPA judicial settlement from 1998 were met, EPA would have proposed air toxics standards for power plants in 2003, finalized them in 2004, and required compliance three years later, in 2007 (pursuant to §112(i) of the Clean Air Act). EPA’s MATS were finalized in 2012 and compliance is required by 2015.

**This is an extremely conservative estimate. In EPA’s final Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, the agency provides a table (Table 7) at page 9424 of the rule [pdf] that summarizes SO2 emissions reductions from the MATS as compared to projections of what 2015 emissions would be without the MATS rule. In formulating our chart, we subtracted emissions figures for each year by 1.4 million tons, which is the change between the MATS and the 2015 base case in Table 7. The rate-based reduction requirements inherent in MACT standards mean that were standards actually implemented in 2007, the reductions would have been much larger than 1.4 million tons per year because of the higher levels of pollution at that time. Emissions figures were taken from EPA’s Air Markets Program Database.  

***Annual figures for mercury were taken from EPA’s “Emissions Overview: Hazardous Air Pollutants in Support of the Final Mercury and Air Toxics Standard,” Table 2, available here [pdf]. EPA estimates that the MATS standards will reduce mercury emissions by 20 tons per year as compared to the 2016 base case (See Table 7 of final rule here [pdf]).