News from U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Region 2: EPA Regional Administrator Visits Children’s Center in Newark, NJ to Highlight Benefits of First-Ever Air Toxics Standards for Power Plants

Mercury and air toxics standards represent one of strongest health protections from air

(March 17, 2011)

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Regional Administrator, Judith Enck today visited the Ironbound Community Corporation’s Children’s Center in Newark, NJ to highlight the health benefits for children of EPA’s newly proposed air toxics standards. Regional Administrator Enck was joined by Dr. Ana Baptista, Environmental & Planning Projects Director for Ironbound Community Corp; Dr. Robert Laumbach, UMDNJ-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School; and Michael Seilback,  Vice President of Public Policy and Communications for the American Lung Association in New York.  

Yesterday, EPA proposed the first-ever national standards for mercury, arsenic and other toxic air pollution from power plants.  The new power plant mercury and air toxics standards – which eliminate 20 years of uncertainty across industry – would require many power plants to install widely available, proven pollution control technologies to cut harmful emissions of mercury, arsenic, chromium, nickel and acid gases, while preventing as many as 17,000 premature deaths and 11,000 heart attacks a year. The new proposed standards would also provide particular health benefits for children, preventing 120,000 cases of childhood asthma symptoms and about 11,000 fewer cases of acute bronchitis among children each year. The proposed standards would also avert more than 12,000 emergency room visits and hospital admissions and 850,000 fewer days of work missed due to illness. This rule will provide employment for thousands, by supporting 31,000 short-term construction jobs and 9,000 long-term utility jobs.

“These proposed standards will have a dramatic impact on the health of children here in New Jersey and across the country,” said Judith Enck. “Half of the toxic mercury and half of the acid gases that get into the air comes from power plants. These standards simply require power plants to install widely available and proven technology to control these pollutants. What we are requiring here is an investment in our children.”

“The Ironbound Community Corporation is pleased to be part of the event today and we applaud this important effort by EPA to make the air cleaner,” said Ana Baptista.  “Getting toxic pollution out of the air will greatly benefit the Ironbound community.”
“These proposed rules will improve health and well-being by reducing the harmful effects caused by power-plant air pollutants across the human lifespan, from prenatal development, through infancy, childhood, and adulthood,” said Dr. Robert Laumbach.

“The new power plant standards being proposed by EPA will help fulfill the promise of the Clean Air Act:  air that is healthy enough to breathe,” said Michael Seilback. “When implemented,this rule will save 17,000 lives, a significant public health achievement.  The Lung Association looks forward to working with the EPA, and participating in the public comment process, to ensure that the final adopted rule offers the maximum level of protection from these dangerous pollutants.”
Toxic air pollutants like mercury from coal- and oil-fired power plants have been shown to cause neurological damage, including lower IQ, in children exposed in the womb and during early development.  The standards also address emissions of other toxic metals linked with cancer such as arsenic, chromium and nickel.  Mercury and many of the other toxic pollutants also damage the environment and pollute our nation’s lakes, streams, and fish. In addition, cutting these toxic pollutants also reduces fine particle pollution, which causes premature death, heart disease, workdays lost to illness and asthma.

Power plants are the largest remaining source of several toxic air pollutants – responsible for half of mercury and more than half of acid gas emissions in the United States.  In the power sector alone, coal-fired power plants are responsible for 99 percent of mercury emissions. Currently, more than half of all coal-fired power plants already deploy the widely available pollution control technologies that allow them to meet these important standards. Once final, these standards will ensure the remaining coal-fired plants, roughly 44 percent, take similar steps to decrease dangerous pollutants.
The updated standards will provide a first-ever level playing field for all power plants across the country, ensure that they play by the same rules, and provide more certainty to business.  The proposed rule provides up to 4 years for facilities to meet the standards and, once fully implemented, will prevent 91 percent of mercury in coal from being released into the air.

More than 20 years ago, the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments mandated that EPA require control of toxic air pollutants including mercury.  Since then, EPA has taken action to reduce mercury emissions from many high-emitting sources; however, there is still no national standard for mercury emissions from power plants.  Today’s announcement is long awaited, coming 11 years after EPA announced it would set such limits for power plants, and following a February 2008 court decision that struck down the previous administration's mercury rule.  In October 2009, EPA entered into a consent decree that required a proposal to be signed by March 16, 2011, and a final rule to be completed by November 2011.

The proposed mercury and air toxics standards are in keeping with President Obama’s executive order on regulatory reform.   They are based on the latest data and provide industry significant flexibility in implementation through a phased-in approach and use of already existing technologies.  

The proposed standards also ensure that public health and economic benefits far outweigh costs of implementation.   EPA estimates that for every dollar spent to reduce pollution from power plants, the American public and American businesses will see up to $13 in health and economic benefits. The total health and economic benefits of this standard are estimated to be as much as $140 billion annually.  

Also in keeping with the president’s executive order, the proposed standard puts a premium on important input and feedback from stakeholders to inform any final standard.  The public comment period, which will last 60 days after appearing in the Federal Register, will allow stakeholders including the public, industry and public health communities, to provide important input and feedback, ensuring that any final standard maximizes public health benefits while minimizing costs.

As part of the public comment process, EPA will also hold public hearings on this proposed rule. Additional details on these events will be announced at a future date.

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