Guest Column: Reining in the coal industry’s assault on public health

One in five premature deaths are attributable to air pollution. Can EPA rules help?

In late 2011, the Environmental Protection Agency issued its first-ever Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, or MATS, to reduce the pollution emitted by power plants. Simply by requiring the worst polluting plants to match the performance and technology of their more responsible competitors, these standards will prevent between 4,200 and 11,000 premature deaths per year.

These public health protections already were years overdue because the coal industry and its allies tried to derail them from the beginning.

Air pollution is lethal. The EPA calculated that one in 20 deaths in the U.S. each year is related to air pollution, mostly excess instances of heart attack, stroke, lung cancer and cardiopulmonary disease.

Coal-fired power plants are by far the largest industrial source of toxic air pollution, responsible for 50 percent of all U.S. emissions of mercury, a potent neurotoxin particularly dangerous to children. Scientific studies have found that nearly 7 percent of all U.S. women of childbearing age are exposed to mercury at levels that can be harmful for fetal brain development.

Many of those whose health is at risk are low-income and people of color. “Coal Blooded: Putting Profits Before People,” a report by the NAACP, found that the 6 million people living near power plants in America have a per capita income 15 percent lower than the U.S. average income, and 39 percent are people of color.

The EPA’s emissions standards for power plants represented a huge step forward in protecting all of us from this assault on public health.

Before the Clean Air Act was amended in 1990, the EPA was paralyzed for decades by wrangling over which toxins should be regulated and whether controlling them was worth the expense. That system worked well for industry but failed the American public.

In 1990, Congress decided that the EPA could consider the costs when determining how stringent its standards should be. But such estimates should not prevent the agency from controlling hazardous air pollutants at all. Nonetheless, coal industry lawyers claim that before the EPA can require power plants to cut their toxic pollution, the agency must weigh the costs of compliance against the benefits.

To support this claim, the coal industry dishonestly asserts that the benefits of this particular standard are only $4 million to $6 million. But the technology needed to reduce mercury and other toxic air pollution will dramatically improve air quality, preventing thousands of non-fatal heart attacks, asthma attacks and hospitalizations and prevent up to 11,000 premature deaths a year. The EPA valued these health benefits at $37 billion to $90 billion annually.

This doesn’t even include facets that are too difficult to monetize. How do you put a price tag on reduced cancer risk? Or on a child born healthy, without mercury poisoning?

Lisa Garcia is the vice president of litigation for Healthy Communities at Earthjustice. She was senior advisor to the administrator for environmental justice at the EPA when MATS was issued. She wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.