Reducing Air Pollution from Power Plants: The Success of the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards
"Where Does Air Pollution Come From?” That’s our theme for the month of March as part of the Year of Air Pollution & Health, and we are doing a series of blogs featuring success stories of reducing pollution from major sources.
First up: The success of the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards in reducing pollution from power plants, and the threat these standards are under today.
First, let’s look at some of the harmful pollutants emitted from power plants. Air pollution from coal- and oil-fired power plants contains more than 80 hazardous air pollutants required for control under the Clean Air Act, including arsenic, chromium, lead, formaldehyde, acid gases, dioxins, and furans. These pollutants can cause cancer; damage the eyes, skin, and breathing passages; harm the kidneys, lungs, and nervous system; cause cardiovascular disease; and kill. They harm people not only near the plants, but also hundreds of miles away. We shared information about these in a report in 2011, Toxic Air: The Case for Cleaning Up Coal-fired Power Plants.
Coal-burning power plants also emit mercury into the air, which falls into waterways and accumulates in fish that families eat. This potent neurotoxin causes permanent damage to the brains of babies and children, leading to developmental delays, learning disabilities and birth defects.
Less talked about are the impacts of the acid gases these plants emit. They spew out of the smokestacks as gases but change into deadly particle pollution in the atmosphere. Particle pollution alone worsens asthma, triggers heart attacks, causes lung cancer and shortens lives.
In short, power plants put lots of dangerous pollutants into the air that are harmful to everyone. Babies and children, pregnant women, older adults, and people with lung disease, heart disease or diabetes face even higher risk from these pollutants.
To help protect Americans’ health from power plant pollution, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) adopted the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards in 2011. EPA estimated that these standards would prevent up to 11,000 premature deaths each year and prevent 4,700 heart attacks, 130,000 asthma attacks, and 5,700 hospital visits annually.
The Mercury and Air Toxics Standards have proved remarkably successful since their adoption. A recent Syracuse University analysis found that the health benefits of reducing mercury have been much larger than EPA originally estimated. In addition to making dramatic reductions in mercury, the standards have also reduced other power plant pollutants, like sulfur dioxide and particulate matter.
Despite this success, the EPA is currently considering a proposal that would undermine the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards. EPA is proposing to weaken the standards for waste coal plants, an especially dirty type of power plants, and to undermine the entire rule to make it easier for opponents to challenge in court.
If finalized, this proposal would result in real harm to the health of Americans, particularly the health of babies and children. This idea is widely unpopular—not just with health organizations, but also faith and environmental organizations, clean energy companies, and even the utilities running the power plants. Power plants have already finished making investments to meet the standards, including installing pollution controls now in operation, and don’t want to see the standards weakened. And senators in both parties have urged EPA to maintain the standards.
Lives have been saved, America’s babies are healthier, and our air is cleaner, thanks to the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards. The Trump Administration must not finalize its proposal to undermine them. Americans have nothing to gain from the rollback of these lifesaving, highly effective standards, and many people—including pregnant women, babies and children—have everything to lose.
We need your help. Please send an official public comment to EPA urging them to keep these lifesaving standards fully in place, not undermine or weaken them.
Blog last updated: April 13, 2020