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The Cost of Mercury Standards

22 Feb 2012  |   Lea Brumfield

Tags: Clean Air

Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) announced plans last Thursday to force a vote on killing the recently published Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rules limiting emissions of mercury and other air toxics from coal-fired power plants.  After casting numerous House votes to restrict the EPA’s jurisdiction and cripple its power, Inhofe’s resolution to limit EPA powers from another direction should come as no surprise.

Despite the Clean Air Act Amendments passed in 1990, requiring the EPA to assess the impacts of mercury emissions and the viability of reducing those emissions, the road towards regulation has been long.  Finally, after finding mercury restrictions “appropriate and necessary” through an exhaustive series of studies spanning over twenty years, the EPA released its Mercury and Air Toxics Standards for power plants in December 2011.  These standards allow over two years for compliance, and 11 out the 15 largest coal utilities, or about half the country’s coal-fired power providers, have already informed their shareholders they are well positioned to meet the standards.  At this point, seventeen states already have their own mercury control programs, and six of those states have standards more stringent than those proposed by the EPA.  Yet opponents of the bill claim this slow crawl towards emissions standards is the EPA blindly “charging ahead.”

In his media release, Inhofe claims that the new standards will cause job losses.  These claims are popular among the Republican leadership, despite the Economic Policy Institute’s findings that the new standards would result in an increase of 28,000 to 158,000 jobs – a number much larger than even the most generous of estimates of jobs created by the Keystone XL Pipeline.   However, Inhofe and his supporters carefully avoid mentioning the reasons for the standards –the devastating health effects of mercury.  Children are particularly vulnerable to the toxic effects of mercury, developing severe disabilities, asthma, and kidney damage.  It’s impossible to ignore the potential $90 billion in savings annually, partially due to 11,000 fewer air pollution-related deaths, and the numerous public health benefits  which will result from full implementation of these clean air safeguards.

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