Why It Matters: the Senate Vote on a Toxic Resolution

When the Senate voted down  S.J Res. 37 by a margin of 53 to 46 yesterday, we at EDF cheered.

The measure would have nixed the new Mercury and Air Toxics Standards that were just finalized by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Those new standards are one of the most important steps EPA has ever taken to clean up our air and protect public health.

EDF’s own Fred Krupp summed up the bipartisan vote this way:

[They] voted against S. J. Res 37. That means they voted for cleaner, healthier, safer air for all Americans. They voted to let EPA do its job, and reduce the mercury and other toxic pollution emitted from power plants into the air we breathe. They voted to save up to 11,000 lives each year, to help prevent neurological damage in babies, and to make it safer to eat fish caught in American waters.

But there’s a lot more to say about why this vote was so critical – and why these standards are so important.

First, let’s look at the standards themselves.  

The Mercury and Air Toxics Standards limit the amount of mercury, arsenic, acid gases, and other noxious toxins that can be emitted by power plants.

The kinds of pollution covered by the standards are all extremely hazardous to human health. Mercury, for instance, impairs brain and neurological development in babies – including those exposed before birth.

The main way people are exposed to mercury is through eating contaminated fish. All 50 states have mercury fish consumption advisories, meaning that mercury has gotten into waterbodies like lakes and ponds and made the fish in those waters potentially unsafe for humans to eat.

That’s why pregnant women are warned about eating certain kinds of fish. But still, one in ten American women of child-bearing age have potentially dangerous levels of mercury in their bloodstream, and about 400,000 babies are born here every year who were exposed to unsafe levels of mercury in the womb. 

The power sector is the largest source of many toxic emissions, including mercury. Coal-fired power plants emit 50% of all the mercury pollution in our air, as well as 77% of all acid gases, and 62% of all arsenic.

Other sectors have long since reduced emissions of toxic pollutants like mercury. Cost-effective (and American made) pollution-control measures, like scrubbers, are available for power plants too.

The Mercury and Air Toxics Standards have been in the works for 20 years. Once they’re finally in effect, the standards will ensure that approximately 90% of the mercury in coal burned by power plants is not emitted to our air.

The standards will also:

  • Prevent up to 11,000 premature deaths—every year
  • Prevent 130,000 childhood asthma attacks every year
  • Prevent 5,700 hospital visits every year
  • Prevent thousands of heart attacks every year
  • Prevent thousands of bronchitis cases every year

But S.J. Res 37 would not only have nixed the new standards, it would also have prevented EPA from issuing a rule that is “substantially the same” in the future.

Fred called it a “scorched earth” policy.

It was certainly drastic — a resolution that would jeopardize EPA’s ability to ever protect Americans from the mercury and other toxic air pollution emitted by power plants.

And it was unnecessary. The main arguments against the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards were not grounded in reality. 

Opponents said the standards would cost too much and would kill jobs. Actually, the benefits of the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards are expected to outweigh the costs by at least 3 to 1, and as much as 9 to 1.

And the new standards are estimated to create up to 117,000 jobs between now and 2015.

Opponents also claimed the standards would threaten America’s electrical supply. Wrong again.

Independent analyses by the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, the U.S. Department of Energy, and the Congressional Research Service confirm that industry can comply with the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards while maintaining the reliability of our electric system. And EPA’s compliance framework establishes a clear and orderly process for securing an extended compliance pathway where needed and will allow utilities to make a smooth transition to cleaner generation.

In fact, numerous power companies have already indicated they can comply with the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards on time. In a December opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal, the leaders of PG&E, Calpine, NextEra, Public Service Enterprise Group, National Grid USA, Exelon, Constellation Energy Group, and Austin Energy explained how they, and many companies, have long prepared for these clean air standards.

The Mercury and Air Toxics Standards received a monumental level of public support: 

  • More than 800,000 Americans submitted comments to EPA in support of these new life-saving protections.
  • The U.S. Conference of Mayors unanimously adopted a resolution supporting the standards, saying that “clean, healthy air and water are fundamental American rights.”
  • Scientists support the standards – including dozens from Ohio universities who sent a letter to their state’s congressional delegation opposing S.J. Res 37.
  • Other organizations publicly supporting the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards include: faith, public health, and clean energy groups; power companies; the NAACP; environmental organizations; and groups representing sportsmen, mothers and fathers, Latinos, small businesses, and consumers.

If S.J. Res 37 had passed, it would have been disastrous for both public health and the environment. Fortunately, a group of 53 Senators from both parties stood up to be counted for clean air yesterday. We should all be grateful to them for their vote.

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