How Many Lives Will the Utility Giant AEP Sacrifice to Get Weaker Clean Air Safeguards?

American Electric Power is shopping a bill around Capitol Hill that would weaken and delay federal clean air standards. These safeguards are designed to protect Americans from pollutants that endanger our health, but AEP wants to block the rules.

The company drafted the language in the bill and now it is trying to get lawmakers to sign on. NRDC and other environmental groups have launched a campaign to ask Members of Congress—and additional utilities—who support the bill:

What’s your number? How many American lives are you willing to sacrifice to weaken clean air safeguards?

Because if the AEP bill becomes law, it would put enough mercury, acid gases, and arsenic in the air to contribute to as many as 34,000 deaths in the first two years alone. It would also trigger 220,000 asthma attacks and lead to 1.5 million missed work days.

This is too high a price for Americans to pay just so a company that made $1.2 billion in profits last year can delay investing in modern pollution controls.

Many major utilities have already started taking steps to comply with the Clean Air Act safeguards. Last December, seven CEOs of leading utilities, including PG&E, Exelon, and Constellation, wrote a letter to the editor of the Wall Street Journal called “We’re Okay with the EPA’s New Air-Quality Regulations.” The authors wrote:

The electric sector has known that these rules were coming. Many companies, including ours, have already invested in modern air-pollution control technologies and cleaner and more efficient power plants. For over a decade, companies have recognized that the industry would need to install controls to comply with the act’s air toxicity requirements, and the technology exists to cost effectively control such emissions, including mercury and acid gases.

Several of the nation’s largest power companies are ready to comply with these important new clean air safeguards. In 2010, the top 10 utilities had a combined $28.4 billion in profits and $7.5 billion in cash balances.

And the safeguards themselves would bring tremendous health benefits to American families—benefits that will save consumers and the government money on medical costs. The EPA has estimated that once the new rules go into effect, each year they will avoid between 6,600 to 17,000 premature deaths, 4,300 cases of chronic bronchitis, 10,000 non-fatal heart attacks, and 12,000 hospitalizations by the year 2016.

For children alone, the EPA estimates the rules will help prevent 110,000 asthma attacks, 6,700 hospital admissions due to asthma, 10,000 cases of acute bronchitis, and approximately 210,000 cases of upper and lower respiratory illness.

Keeping our children safe, protecting Americans from disease, and cleaning up the air: that’s what the new safeguards can achieve.

But AEP's bill means more illness and shortened lives. It would:

  • Delay for at least two years new EPA standards that will reduce mercury, nitrogen oxide, carbon dioxide, and several of the most toxic contaminants that come from power plants.
  • Block for at least a decade the EPA’s efforts to reduce emissions of arsenic, chromium, and acid gases from power plants.
  • Prevent the EPA from taking action to fully protect human health from interstate air pollution released from coal-fired power plants.
  • Prohibit the EPA from finalizing proposed emission standards for sulfur dioxide pollution, which turns into lethal particulates, for at least a decade.

These changes would be very convenient for AEP and other companies that have delayed cleaning up their own pollution. But you have to ask: who will it hurt in the process? And how many lives does AEP believe it is worth risking?