A Victory on Mercury Emissions


Despite extensive lobbying by the coal industry, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released new standards that will reduce mercury and other toxic emissions from power plants. Coal plants are the largest source of mercury emissions, accounting for 50% of such emissions worldwide. Praising the landmark protections, known as the The Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS), the Sierra Club noted that “Exposure in the bloodstreams of pregnant and nursing women can result in birth defects such as learning disabilities, lowered IQ, deafness, blindness and cerebral palsy.” The Sierra Club’s efforts resulted in more than 800,000 public comments being filed in support of the new standards, helping to secure its passage.

In the U.S., coal-fired power plants release 33 tons of mercury into the air each year. Once released, it settles into the nation’s waterways, contaminating fish and posing a health hazard, particularly to pregnant women and children. In 2008, 40% of the nation’s lakes were under advisory for unsafe mercury levels, representing 16 million lake acres. Under the new standards, mercury emissions from both coal and natural gas power plants will be reduced by more than 90%, acid gas emissions by 88% and sulfur dioxide emissions by 41%. It is the first such standard to be passed regarding mercury and other toxic air pollution limits.

“Power plants are notorious polluters, and while we are disappointed that greenhouse gases from power plants did not get regulated this year, mercury and other pollutants are of deep concern,” said Eric Lerner, director of the U.S. Health Care Without Harm Climate and Health Program. “This new standard is a major step toward protecting the environment and public health.”

The EPA estimates that MATS will have direct health benefits, preventing 130,000 cases of childhood asthma symptoms and resulting in about 6,300 fewer cases of acute bronchitis among children each year. Not only will the new rules protect public health—particularly for minority and low-income people most impacted by nearby power plants—but they will also create jobs as workers are needed to install, operate and maintain pollution controls. The EPA estimates that the rule will “provide employment for tens of thousands of Americans, by supporting 46,000 short‐term construction jobs and 8,000 long‐term utility jobs.”

Facilities will have four years to meet the standards, and the EPA provides assurance that MATS will not impact the nation’s power supply, writing that “EPA’s analysis projects 4.7 gigawatts will retire out of the more than 1,000 gigawatts that make up the nation’s electric generating capacity. That’s less than one half of one percent.”