Environmental Leaders Urge Biden Administration to Curb Dangerous Power Plant Pollution

WASHINGTON – Environmental leaders are urging President Biden to strengthen a suite of federal standards to protect the climate and people’s health from dangerous pollution that continues to spew from the nation’s coal and gas power plants.

In a letter to the president, the leaders call for ambitious protections tackling the many dangers posed by power plants. Every year, power plants emit enormous quantities of air toxics and millions of tons of carbon pollution, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides into the air and discharge more than a billion pounds of toxic chemicals into waterways, harming public health and driving climate change.

The letter also calls for scaled-up clean energy investments and new authority to limit pollution—such as those announced in the ambitious American Jobs Plan on March 31 to boost the economy and create jobs in communities where they’re needed most. The letter notes that it is critical to phase down power sector carbon emissions at least 80 percent below their 2005 peak levels by 2030, which will support the administration’s 2035 target for 100 percent clean electricity.

“These power plants still cause tens of thousands of deaths and hundreds of thousands of illnesses each year, are the nation’s largest stationary source of climate pollution, and cause massive damage to ecosystems and agriculture,” the environmental leaders write. “The health harms, climate impacts, and other damages fall disproportionately on overburdened and disadvantaged communities. We strongly support your commitment to ensure environmental justice communities and leaders are thoroughly engaged—and heard—in shaping and designing our nation’s pollution control priorities and policies."

“By carrying out EPA’s responsibilities under current law in parallel with seeking new incentives, investments, and authority from Congress to limit pollution,” they continue, “your administration can protect all communities while creating millions of good jobs for workers across the country, including those in industries currently dependent on high-polluting fuels.”

The letter was sent to President Biden, National Climate Adviser Gina McCarthy and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan from leaders of Earthjustice, Environmental Defense Fund, Evergreen Action, League of Conservation Voters, Moms Clean Air Force, NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council), Sierra Club and the Union of Concerned Scientists.

In the letter, they welcome the president’s bold vision to combat climate change and dedication in the American Rescue Act and the American Jobs Plan to building back an economy that creates millions of jobs and that protects and builds opportunity in communities on the front lines of air pollution and climate change.

They also call on Congress to invest in reducing health-harming, toxic pollution from fossil fuel-fired power plants to prioritize the health of disadvantaged communities in the transition to a clean energy economy.

The leaders call for stronger multi-pollutant standards on power plants in these areas:

  • Curb toxic pollution: Strengthen the current mercury and air toxics standards for power plants.
  • Clean up deadly soot and smog: Aggressively enforce existing ambient air quality standards for dangerous fine particles and ozone and update and strengthen these standards to reflect current science.
  • Safeguard the climate: Adopt strong carbon pollution standards for existing coal and gas plants, and for new gas plants.
  • Protect our parks and visibility: Strengthen pollution controls for power plants that pollute and degrade vistas in our national parks.
  • Cut toxic water pollution: Close loopholes in the effluent limitations for coal-fired power plants and strengthen the standards based on state-of-the-art treatment technology.
  • Curb coal ash: Strengthen safeguards for disposing the toxic waste produced by coal-fired electric power generation.

The full text of the letter follows:

April 6, 2021
President Joseph R. Biden, Jr.
1600 Pennsylvania Ave., NW
Washington, DC 20500
Re:  Vital Public Health and Climate Protections to Address the Nation’s Power Plant Pollution  

Dear President Biden: 

On behalf of our millions of members, we thank you for your bold vision to combat climate change and your dedication, in the American Rescue Plan and the American Jobs Plan, to building back an economy that creates millions of well-paying jobs and that protects and builds opportunity in communities on the front lines of air pollution and climate change. 

Coal- and gas-fired power plants are among the country’s largest industrial source of dangerous air pollution. Despite years of progress thanks to past clean air protections and the plummeting costs of clean energy, power plants still emitted more than 1.6 billion metric tons of carbon pollution in 2019, nearly one million tons of sulfur dioxide, and nearly 900,000 tons of nitrogen oxides. Three-quarters of coal-fired plants still lack modern air pollution controls 30 years after the Clean Air Act was last amended, and every year they also discharge more than a billion pounds of toxic chemicals and other pollutants into the nation’s waterways and dump tens of millions of tons of coal ash into ponds and landfills that can leach into rivers and groundwater. 

As a result, these power plants still cause tens of thousands of deaths and hundreds of thousands of illnesses each year, are the nation’s largest stationary source of climate pollution, and cause massive damage to ecosystems and agriculture. The health harms, climate impacts, and other damages fall disproportionately on overburdened and disadvantaged communities. We strongly support your commitment to ensure environmental justice communities and leaders are thoroughly engaged—and heard—in shaping and designing our nation’s pollution control priorities and policies. 

We support your goal of achieving 100 percent clean electricity by 2035. We applaud your Day One executive order directing EPA to reverse the Trump administration’s effort to undermine standards for mercury and other toxic air pollutants. We note the decision of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals the day before your inauguration throwing out the former administration’s do-nothing standard for power plant carbon pollution, and giving EPA both a clear mandate and a clean slate to set new standards that protect public health and the environment. And we support your intention to announce a new national commitment under the Paris Agreement this month. 

We urge you now to set a clear and aggressive schedule for EPA to adopt and implement ambitious multi-pollutant power sector protections to curb the full range of dangers power plants pose. EPA has urgent responsibilities under three of the nation’s fundamental environmental laws—the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act—to address the serious public health and environmental threats from power plants. By carrying out EPA’s responsibilities under current law in parallel with seeking new incentives, investments, and authority from Congress to limit pollution, your administration can protect all communities while creating millions of good jobs for workers across the country, including those in industries currently dependent on high-polluting fuels. It is critical to phase down power sector carbon emissions at least 80 percent below their 2005 peak levels by 2030, which will support your administration’s 2035 target for 100 percent clean electricity. Cleaning up the power sector is also essential to a broader strategy of electrifying our vehicles, buildings, and industry, in order to reduce the health- and climate-harming pollution from those sectors. 

A multi-pollutant power sector approach and schedule for action under our current laws should include at least the following key elements: 

  • Curbing toxic pollution: EPA must restore the “appropriate and necessary” finding and strengthen the current mercury and air toxics standards for power plants.
  • Cleaning up deadly soot and smog: Every power plant must address its health-harming pollution. EPA must aggressively enforce existing ambient air quality standards for dangerous fine particles and ozone and should quickly update and strengthen those standards to reflect current science. The agency must strengthen the “good neighbor” and other implementation rules to protect millions of people afflicted by upwind pollution beyond their control, and must set state-of-the-art standards for smog-forming oxides of nitrogen from new gas plants. EPA must also require power plants to consistently use the control technologies they already have installed but frequently turn off or bypass, and the agency must close the illegal loopholes for pollution during startups, shutdowns, and malfunctions.
  • Safeguarding our climate: Cutting climate pollution from the power sector is essential to addressing the climate crisis. EPA must adopt strong carbon pollution standards for existing coal and gas plants, and for new gas plants.
  • Protecting our parks and visibility: EPA must protect the millions of visitors to our national parks and the local economies that depend on them by reinstating and strengthening pollution control requirements for power plants that pollute national parks and degrade vistas over vast areas of our beautiful country. 
  • Cutting toxic water pollution: EPA must close loopholes in the effluent limitations for coal-fired power plants and strengthen the standards based on state-of-the-art treatment technology. 
  • Curbing coal ash: EPA must restore and strengthen safeguards for disposal of coal ash, the toxic waste produced by coal-fired electric power generation. 

These vital public health and climate protections should be implemented through a set of rulemakings proposed by the end of this year and promulgated in 2022.  

We urge your administration to fully carry out its responsibilities under our air, water, and waste laws to protect all people in all parts of our nation from the dangerous pollution from coal and gas plants. It is critical that these actions guarantee meaningful public health, climate, and environmental protections through quantifiable and enforceable pollution reductions. 

In parallel with enforcing robust limits on power sector pollution, the administration should also seek new authority and investments from Congress to equitably curb the multiple dangers posed by fossil fuel-fired power plants and ensure that disadvantaged communities experience the benefits of the transformation to a clean energy economy. We enthusiastically support the commitments to environmental justice made in your Executive Order on Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad and the American Jobs Plan, and urge the administration to engage directly with frontline communities to advance programs to address cumulative pollution impacts and to direct clean energy and energy efficiency investments to the communities where they are needed most. 

Thank you for your leadership in rebuilding the economy, creating good jobs, protecting people’s health, and reducing the ravages of the climate crisis. We are excited to work with you on all these initiatives to achieve our shared goals of meeting the demands of science while creating a stronger and more equitable future for us all. 


Mitchell S. Bernard 

President & Chief Counsel  

Natural Resources Defense Council  


Dominique Browning

Director and Co-Founder  

Moms Clean Air Force 


Michael Brune 

Executive Director  

Sierra Club 


Abigail Dillen




Gene Karpinski


League of Conservation Voters 


Fred Krupp


Environmental Defense Fund 


Jamal Raad

Executive Director

Evergreen Action


Kathleen Rest

Executive Director & Interim President 

Union of Concerned Scientists 


 CC: Gina McCarthy 

National Climate Advisor 

Michael Regan 

Administrator, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency 

NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) is an international nonprofit environmental organization with more than 3 million members and online activists. Since 1970, our lawyers, scientists, and other environmental specialists have worked to protect the world's natural resources, public health, and the environment. NRDC has offices in New York City, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Bozeman, MT, and Beijing. Visit us at www.nrdc.org and follow us on Twitter @NRDC.

One of the world’s leading international nonprofit organizations, Environmental Defense Fund (edf.org) creates transformational solutions to the most serious environmental problems. To do so, EDF links science, economics, law, and innovative private-sector partnerships. With more than 2.5 million members and offices in the United States, China, Mexico and the European Union, EDF’s scientists, economists, attorneys and policy experts are working in 23 countries and across the E.U. to turn our solutions into action. Connect with us on Twitter @EnvDefenseFund.

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