The court battle over our historic and life-saving Mercury and Air Toxics Standards has now taken another step forward.
A coalition of 21 states, three cities, 19 medical, environmental, and civil rights organizations, and a number of energy companies filed briefs with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in support of the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) new standards for toxic pollution from power plants.
Last week’s filings are the latest step in a decades-long effort to protect public health from burning coal and oil.
Here’s the history behind the long fight to clean up mercury and other toxic air pollution from power plants:
EPA first concluded in 2000 that regulating toxic pollutants, including mercury, from power plants is “appropriate and necessary.”
It was hardly a surprise. Power plants are responsible for half of the mercury pollution, two-thirds of the arsenic emissions, and three quarters of the acid gases emitted in America.
More than a decade of political maneuvering then passed before EPA finally issued the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards in 2012.
The standards limit the amount of mercury, arsenic, chromium, hydrochloric acid, hydrofluoric acid, and other gases that can be spewed into the atmosphere when coal and oil are burned for power.
The standards provide public health benefits that outweigh costs by a factor of nearly nine to one. They also allow flexibility and time needed for the standards to be implemented in an orderly manner.
But in spite of the overwhelming benefits of the standards, and the widespread support for them, some utility interests sued to stop them.
EPA filed briefs in support of its rules at the end of January. The standards’ supporters – including EDF — also joined the effort to protect them in court.
Why are so many different entities willing to fight in court to protect the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards?
Here are some of their reasons, in their own words, from the court briefs.
The health impacts of toxic pollution from power plants are serious. More than 300,000 newborns face the risk of learning disabilities due to prenatal exposure to mercury. These health risks also fall unevenly:
The health damage caused by air toxics is borne disproportionately by communities of color and the poor. Members of these disadvantaged groups are exposed to more hazardous air pollutants than other Americans because they are more likely to live in close proximity to coal-fired power plants. Their health suffers as a result.
Because of the long delay in setting standards at the federal level, many states have set their own limits on mercury from power plants. But states can’t control the air pollution from beyond their borders, as they told the court in their brief:
While many states … have enacted controls on EGU mercury emissions, those controls cannot rein in emissions originating outside our state borders. EGU mercury emissions have continued to pollute our waters, making fish consumption unsafe for pregnant women and children, and making local fish advisories our last option to protect our residents.
We have the technology to limit toxic pollutants from power plants — but not every power plant is using it, as the industry supporters of the rule point out:
Less than two-thirds of EGUs have scrubbers, and fewer still have configured their scrubbers to remove hazardous pollutants … Furthermore, much of the control equipment installed in response to Title IV [Acid Rain Program] and other programs fails to reduce hazardous pollutants reliably because it is not operated consistently.
(You can find more details and read the briefs themselves on our website)
Opponents have argued that EPA provided insufficient process in its nearly 15-year effort to issue the MATS standards.
They also argue that regulation of toxic pollution from power plants isn’t appropriate or necessary.
EPA, EDF, and many other health, economic, and legal experts have strongly rebutted these arguments before – and now, the legal briefs they’ve filed do as well.
America has been hard at work limiting air pollution for more than forty years. We’ve made significant gains, and that progress has paid major benefits in terms of improved health and increased economic development.
EPA’s analysis found that Clean Air Act protections saved an estimated 160,000 lives between 1990 and 2012. By 2020, the economic value of those protections is expected to reach $2 trillion.
Another series of studies — An economic analysis of the benefits and costs of the Clean Air Act 1970 to 1990: Revised report of results and findings — found that U.S. GDP in 2010 was up to 1.5 percent higher because of the health-protective benefits of the Clean Air Act.
Limiting toxic pollution from power plants is one more example of just the type of environmental protection that works in everyone’s interest.
We’ll bring you updates on the court case as it goes forward.