Cleaning our air is worth the cost

Overdue standards will save lives, improve health

March 20, 2011 

What is the Obama administration thinking?

Just as turmoil in the Mideast drives up gasoline prices, and fears of a meltdown in Japan fuel doubts about nuclear power, the U.S. is jacking up the price of coal-fired electricity at home by regulating mercury, arsenic and other toxic pollutants from power plants?

In fact, the administration had no control over the timing of the proposed rule announced last week. The Environmental Protection Agency was under a court-imposed deadline of March 16.

And after 20 years of hemming and hawing, it's time to start controlling the 386,000 tons of toxins that rain down on this country each year from coal-fired power plants, the No. 1 source of air pollution.

It's past time, really.

A bipartisan majority of Congress in 1990 ordered the EPA to get to work on nationwide standards for toxic emissions from power plants. If people should be alarmed about anything, it's that it's taken so long and that the health of so many has suffered during the delay.

As the crisis at the Fukushima reactors reminds us, invisible substances in the air can do grave harm to human health and lasting damage to the environment.

In Kentucky, so much mercury has entered the aquatic food chain that every single lake and stream is under a mercury advisory for women and young children. Kentucky is always in the top 10 states for mercury pollution — with an estimated 5,930 pounds falling on the state in 2009.

Mercury is a powerful neurotoxin that can cause birth defects and reduce the IQ of children. Mercury is just one of a list of pollutants that, under the EPA proposal, would be greatly reduced over the next four years: Less arsenic, chromium, nickel and acid gases would pollute the air we breathe.

As many as 17,000 premature deaths and 11,000 heart attacks a year would be prevented, the EPA projects, along with 120,000 childhood asthma attacks and 11,000 cases of acute bronchitis among children.

The new standards would avert more than 12,000 emergency room visits and hospital admissions and 850,000 lost work days.

All this would come at a cost: $10 billion, according to the EPA or an additional $3 to $4 a month on electric bills.

But the health and environmental benefits would exceed $100 billion a year.

Fortunately, more than half of the nation's coal-fired power plants already deploy pollution control technologies that meet the proposed standards.

Getting the rest of them up to speed or replacing them with cleaner models will cost money but also create jobs.

The EPA estimates that nationally the change will create 31,000 short-term construction jobs and 9,000 long-term utility jobs.

Kentucky utilities have successfully deployed technologies that dramatically reduced the emissions that cause smog and acid rain, creating employment boomlets in the process, and still providing some of the country's cheapest power.

They can just as effectively reduce emissions of mercury and other toxins. And we'll all breathe easier when they do.

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