EPA Moves to Protect Public Health from Toxins

After more than a decade of delay, the US Environmental Protection Agency is moving to set toxic emission control standards for coal and oil-fired power plants. The agency is following the mandate of Clean Air Act amendments passed in 1990, which were originally supposed to go into effect in the year 2000. According to the EPA the proposed standards will, if implemented successfully, prevent up 17,000 deaths and 11,000 heart attacks each year. At the same time the standards will spur the creation of construction jobs as some old coal plants are retrofitted with pollution controls and others are replaced by cleaner methods of electricity generation.

It’s about time the EPA moved forward on public health protections which Congress decided the American people deserved over twenty years ago. In 1990, amendments to the Clean Air Act that required the EPA to set limits for toxic pollutants were passed by Congress with strong bi-partisan support. Pollutants covered by the standards include mercury, arsenic, benzene, and eighty-two other compounds dangerous to human health. Limiting these toxins will decrease the risk of heart problems, respiratory illness, cancer, and nervous system damage for millions of people living downstream of pollution sources.

However in the early 2000s, when rules applying to power plants were supposed to kick in, the George W. Bush administration proved reluctant to take action. The Bush EPA eventually proposed mercury rules so weak that they were struck down as illegal in court, meaning the Obama administration had to begin all over again. The Obama EPA, headed by Lisa P. Jackson, released a set of proposed standards on Wednesday in response to a court deadline. The rules will now be up for public comment, and a final version will be adopted this fall. Old coal plants will have to be brought into compliance with the new rules by the year 2015.

It would be nice to think the new EPA rules will represent the end of a long battle to protect public health from the dangerous impacts of pollution. However Congress, which told the EPA to create these rules more than two decades ago, has changed a lot since 1990. Today Republicans and a few Democrats in Congress are up in arms about the very Clean Air Act amendments that once passed with such bipartisan support. The coal and oil lobby’s growing power over politics has meant many lawmakers now place the desires of fossil fuel industries over public health concerns.

As the public comment period for the new rules opens, Big Oil and Big Coal will doubtless try to weaken the EPA’s proposed standards. Meanwhile members of Congress are looking at ways to blog pollution standards from ever taking effect. Clean energy innovators and those concerned about public health and air quality can fight back by letting Congress and the EPA know that sacrificing public health is not acceptable. Americans have waited long enough for these Clean Air Act rules to finally materialize, and further delay is unacceptable.

Photo credit: George Campbell