Regulating Toxic Pollutants from Power Plants under the Clean Air Act

Twenty years ago, the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 required the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to protect the public’s health by setting limits on toxic air pollutants such as mercury, lead, arsenic, acid gases, and dioxins. 

While the EPA took steps to reduce mercury emissions, they had never set any national limits on the amount of these hazardous pollutants that come from power plants, until now.  

Even in small amounts, these pollutants are linked to health problems such as cancer, heart disease, neurological damage, birth defects, asthma attacks, and even premature death.

EPA Releases Final Mercury and Air Toxics Rule

On December 21, 2011, the EPA released a long-overdue final Mercury and Air Toxics rule that would control hazardous air pollution from coal- and oil-fired power plants. Utilities will have at least three years to fully comply with the requirements. 

Already, many of our nation’s cleanest and best performing power plants are meeting these new standards.  The dirtiest power plants will now have to clean up their toxic pollution to the same levels.

This approach is not only reasonable, but it also ensures that power plants with good pollution controls are not put at an economic disadvantage compared with dirtier facilities.  

Reducing Toxic Power Plant Emissions Will Save Lives, Improve Health, Save Money

According to the EPA, reducing toxic power plant emissions will prevent as many as 11,000 premature deaths and 4,700 heart attacks each year. The final standards would also avert more than 5,700 emergency room visits and hospital admissions and 540,000 fewer days of work missed due to illness. 

The EPA estimates the value of these health benefits alone will total between $37 billion and $90 billion each year, delivering $3-$9 in health benefits for every dollar spent to reduce pollution.

The Dangers of Mercury Emissions

Power plants are the largest source for several toxic air pollutants. In particular, they are by far the largest source of mercury in the United States, with coal-fired power plants making up the vast majority of that.

Mercury is a potent neurotoxin that poses a threat to fetal and infant brain development, ultimately affecting a child’s ability to walk, talk, and learn.

Mercury emitted from these plants and other sources settles into water bodies where it subsequently accumulates in fish.  When pregnant and nursing women (or women who may become pregnant) consume these fish, the mercury pollution ultimately affects their children.  

According to the EPA’s data, more than 300,000 babies are born each year are at risk of mercury poisoning, while at least one in 12, and as many as one in six, American women have enough mercury in their bodies to put a baby at risk.

UCS Will Fight Attacks on EPA’s Final Rule

Despite the health benefits and affordability of the EPA’s final Mercury and Air Toxics rule, some energy companies and their allies in Congress are still working to block or weaken the standards. 

These are also many of the same interests that are seeking to stop the EPA from using its Clean Air Act authority to protect our health from global warming emissions from power plants and refineries.  

In the coming months, UCS will work to stop congressional attacks on the Clean Air Act so that badly-needed limits on mercury, air toxics, and carbon emissions can go forward. 

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Last Revised: December 21, 2011

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