Oppose Bills That Repeal Health Safeguards Against Mercury Pollution

Here is testimony I delivered at a September 8th hearing before the House Energy & Power Subcommittee, in which I opposed two destructive bills to severely weaken and indefinitely delay mercury and air toxics cleanup standards for thousands of industrial polluters.

My longer written statement is available here [pdf] and my oral statement follows below. (I also have written posts about one or both of these dirty bills here, here, here and here.)

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Thank you, Mr. Chairman and members of the Subcommittee, for the opportunity to testify today. My name is John Walke, and I am clean air director and senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The two bills that are the subject of today’s hearing, H.R. 2250 and H.R. 2681, weaken the Clean Air Act drastically to authorize the indefinite delay of toxic air pollution standards for incinerators, industrial boilers and cement plants. Worse, these bills rewrite the Clean Air Act and overturn multiple federal court decisions to eviscerate strong toxic air pollution standards that under current law must be applied to control dangerous mercury, lead, dioxins and acid gases from these facilities.

Industrial boilers and cement plants are some of the largest emitters of mercury and scores of other toxic air pollutants that still are failing to comply with basic Clean Air Act requirements for toxic pollution over two decades after adoption of the 1990 amendments. Yet here we are today discussing whether to authorize the indefinite delay of toxic air pollution safeguards for these industries. This is not responsible public policy.

Were these standards to be delayed by even a single year by these two bills, the potential magnitude of extreme health consequences would be as follows:

  • Up to 9,000 premature deaths;
  • 5,500 non-fatal heart attacks;
  • 58,000 asthma attacks; and
  • 440,000 days when people must miss work or school.

Yet H.R. 2250 blocks mercury and air toxics safeguards for a minimum of 3.5 years, causing an additional 22,750 premature deaths; 14,000 non-fatal heart attacks; and 143,000 asthma attacks beyond what current law will prevent.

By the same token, H.R. 2681 blocks mercury and air toxics safeguards for a minimum of nearly 5 years, causing an additional 11,250 premature deaths; 6,750 non-fatal heart attacks; and 76,500 asthma attacks beyond what current law will prevent.

EPA estimates that the value of the health benefits associated with the incinerator and boiler standards are between $22 billion to $54 billion starting in 2014, compared with industry compliance costs estimated at only $1.4 billion. EPA has found that the benefits of these cement health standards will be as high as $18 billion annually starting in 2013, with benefits significantly outweighing the costs by a margin of up to 19:1. What other Congressional actions or stock market investments result in this astonishing return on investments for the American people?

Let me emphasize in the strongest possible terms that these bills are not mere “15 month delays of the rules as EPA itself has requested,” as some have cast the legislation. First, the bills cause the complete evisceration of the substantive statutory standards for achieving reductions in toxic air pollution. The final sections of both bills eliminate the most protective legal standard for reducing toxic air pollution that has been in the Clean Air Act for nearly twenty-one years. The two bills replace this with the absolute least protective measures even mentioned in the law. This represents gross over-reaching beyond the April 2012 deadline EPA is following. This is not defensible public policy. 

This single provision in both bills would have the effect of exempting incinerators, industrial boilers and cement plants from maximum reductions in toxic air pollution emissions, in contrast to almost every other major industrial source of toxic air pollution in the nation.

Second, the bills eliminate any statutory deadlines for EPA to re-issue standards to protect Americans. For longstanding, mandatory deadlines, the legislation substitutes a mere instruction that EPA may finalize future standards “on such later date as may be determined by the Administrator.” Why are members suddenly interesting in granting complete, open-ended discretion to EPA just when it carries purely deregulatory consequences?

Both steps are unprecedented in this Committee or any other legislation introduced in Congress to my knowledge.

I hope you will not vote for bills as irresponsible as these two.

But if members have decided to do so already, I respectfully appeal to your sense of honesty and decency to do at least this. Please explain clearly to your constituents, to the church congregations in your districts, to all Americans why you are voting to actively eliminate protections for children and the unborn against industrial mercury pollution and brain poisoning.

Especially those among you that are on record for protecting children and the unborn in other contexts, please explain why there is a double standard where it is acceptable to actively dismantle existing protections for children and the unborn against industrial mercury pollution.

These bills could be called the Mercury Poisoning Acts of 2011, yet I did not hear the word "mercury" so much as mentioned in opening statements before [EPA Assistant Administrator for Air] Ms. McCarthy’s testimony by members that are voicing support for these bills. How can that be?

In closing, I urge you not to weaken the Clean Air Act so profoundly, and cause so much preventable premature deaths, asthma attacks and mercury poisoning.

I welcome any questions about my testimony, especially regarding any disagreements about factual or legal characterizations concerning the two bills.

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Note: no member at the hearing challenged my legal or factual characterizations of the bills or their consequences. There will be a vote on both bills in the subcommittee on September 13th.