Obama's Mercury Ruling Saves 300,000 Babies a Year From Learning Disabilities, Says EPA

Pete Souza/White House/CC BY 3.0

"I will not back down from protecting our kids from mercury poison.”

With those words in his State of the Union address, President Obama took a firm stand against the coal industry's arguments that controlling mercury is too expensive.

A flurry of lobbying ensued after the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) passed a long-overdue "Maximum Achievable Control Technology" rule for mercury emissions. But industry cannot succeed at stalling the requirements in the face of a President who will veto any legislation introduced to nullify the new rule.

How Much of a Problem are Coal Power Mercury Emissions?

In the Republican response to Obama's State of the Union address, Governor Mitch Daniels ridiculed the Obama administration for dictating which light bulbs Americans should buy (even though legislation was actually signed into law by President George W. Bush). Although Daniels did not mention it, the fact that many replacements for incandescent bulbs use small amounts of mercury is often cited in defense of Edison's technology.

The lesser known fact that low-energy light bulbs actually reduce overall mercury emissions demonstrates that significant amounts of mercury emanate from coal burning power plants.

300,000 Babies a Year Protected From Learning Disabilities

Once dispersed in the environment, mercury persists and accumulates in the food chain. Mercury toxicity begins at very low levels. The EPA estimates that 1 in 6 mothers in America already carries enough mercury in her body to threaten her developing child with learning disabilities. That is 300,000 babies a year that will be protected by limiting mercury emissions.

EPA further estimates that by 2016, up to 11,000 premature deaths -- from heart attacks, asthma, and other mercury-related diseases -- will be eliminated. A cost savings of $90 billion per year will accrue from reducing medical expenses and lost work days.

The Coal Industry Fights Back

The American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE) claims that "the proposed Utility MACT rule and other pending EPA regulations* would destroy an average of 183,000 jobs every year from 2012- 2020 and increase electricity and other energy prices by $170 billion." (*The report evaluates EPA's Cross-State Air Pollution Rule (CSAPR), coal combustion residuals regulation, and Clean Water Act regulation of cooling water in addition to the utility MACT).

That estimate results in a cost of $270 per year for the average American household, which probably lands on the high side, as there will be downward pressures on electrical prices due to the increased availability of (unfortunately) fracking-related gas, and a reduction in power use in response to rising electricity prices. The jobs estimate almost surely falls on the high side as well, for the same reasons.

What the EPA Ruling Really Means

The EPA rule requires that coal power plants install what is known as "maximum achievable control technology."

This is a mechanism used when it is technically or economically impossible to reduce emissions to a level which can be considered "safe." Because of its persistence and accumulation, it would be very difficult to show that any level of mercury emissions is "safe."

So, instead of settings safe limits for emissions, EPA requires that industrial emissions sources install the best possible controls to reduce emissions. Existing technology can ensure that about 90% of the mercury in coal will be removed from the waste emissions before they leave the smokestack. The same equipment that is fitted on the plants to control mercury will control other air toxics as well, including arsenic, acid gas, nickel, selenium, and cyanide.

The coal industry has successfully fought regulation for so long, that the EPA was under a court order to pass regulations before the end of 2011 (they met the deadline by a hair with the announcement of mercury regulations on the 21st of December).

Industry has fought so long that EPA estimates that 60% of coal power plants already utilize maximum achievable control technology, leaving only 600 plants facing a decision on whether to shut down or retrofit.

A level playing field and certainty about the requirements for the future have some advantage to industry, and the costs of these regulations appear to be in line with the benefits.

President Obama's message now that the rule has finally been passed is clear: backing down remains an option no longer.

Tags: Coal | Electricity | Pollution

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