EPA's New Pollution Rule: Protecting Our Health When Industry Won't

Last week, the EPA reminded us of the critical role pollution limits can play in protecting our health. The agency announced a new rule for power plants that will prevent an estimated 14,000 to 36,000 premature deaths and generate more than $120 billion in annual health benefits.

This rule making means a lot to me personally. I spent eight years working for the State of New York, fighting to reduce the power plant pollution. Though we made progress by suing Midwestern plants that were sending pollution downwind to New York, we knew we needed a comprehensive, federal approach like the one the EPA is now proposing.

But the new rule is much more than a personal triumph. It is also a victory for the idea that science-based regulation is good for all Americans.

Over the past 30 years, there has been a steady chipping away of the concept that the government is here to protect us. Every time a new pollution or safety rule is introduced, government officials must prove that safeguarding the public is more valuable than the industry’s right to pollute. 

Industry is simply protecting its own interests. But who is protecting the American people’s interests?

Government regulators are supposed to do that job, but they are often left underfunded and without the tools they need to enforce the rules already on the books. The end result can be disastrous, as the blowout in the Gulf of Mexico makes painfully clear.

The new EPA rule is a step in the right direction, and I applaud Administrator Lisa Jackson for leading this turnaround.

The rule requires coal-fired power plants in 31 states to reduce sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxide (NOX)— emissions which contribute to smog and soot pollution in downwind states. (For more on the details of the rule making, read my colleague John Walke’s recent post.)

The benefits are remarkable. In addition to the lives saved, they will prevent 23,000 nonfatal heart attacks, 21,000 cases of acute bronchitis, and 240,000 cases of aggravated asthma.

These benefits far outweigh the annual cost of complying with the new rule, which EPA estimates at $2.8 billion in 2014. Compare that to the financial savings generated by the rule: the $120 billion per year is at the low end of the range. The high end is an astounding $290 billion.

This kind of cost-benefit analysis is useful, but most of us pay the price for pollution in far more concrete ways. We pay it when we are in New York City during a bad air day—like the current heat wave—and have trouble breathing. We pay it when we have to go to the ER because of respiratory or cardiac problems. We pay it when our children miss school because of asthma attacks. And we pay it when we travel to the Adirondacks and see clear but dead lakes.

This is how we pay when our interests are not protected. The EPA’s new rule is helping to change that.