An otherwise disappointing year for environmentalists ended on an up note this week when the Obama administration released new rules requiring the nation's power plants to curb emissions of mercury, arsenic and other toxic pollutants. The tougher protections are long overdue, and they could spare thousands of Americans from premature death or from chronic disease. The administration, the states and industry should work together to advance this public health priority.
The rules, announced by the Environmental Protection Agency, mark the first time the federal government has imposed regulations requiring plants to limit their release of mercury, acid gas and other dangerous pollutants. Power plants are the largest source of many of these toxic releases, responsible for half the mercury and more than 75 percent of acid gas emissions in the United States. The rules could affect hundreds of power plants across the country, including 26 in Florida such as Progress Energy's oil-fired plant at Anclote and Tampa Electric's coal-fired facility near Apollo Beach.
This is a major win for public health. Exposure to mercury can damage the nervous system of fetuses and young children and cause development problems. Toxic metals such as arsenic and nickel can cause cancer. Acid gas damages the lungs and can lead to chronic respiratory problems, especially among the young and the elderly. According to the EPA, the rules could prevent up to 11,000 premature deaths, 4,700 heart attacks and 130,000 asthma attacks every year. These are family members, co-workers and neighbors.
Predictably, some utilities and Republicans are complaining that the changes will force some viable plants to close and eliminate thousands of jobs. That is a scare tactic. Most plants covered by the rule already use pollution control measures that will enable them to meet the new standards. Indeed, utilities saw this coming, investing in clean technologies over the 20-year period that the rules were being developed. The EPA estimates that the monetary benefits alone in avoided health care and sick day costs could be 10 times the $9 billion a year the industry would spend to comply. In a statement, Progress Energy chairman Bill Johnson said the company was looking forward to working with the EPA "to ensure that compliance with the rule is both effective and achievable." A spokeswoman for TECO Energy, the parent of Tampa Electric, said the company's investments in pollution controls makes it "well-positioned to comply with the EPA's new rule" within the proposed four-year time frame.
There is no economic or moral argument for continuing to allow the nation's dirtiest energy plants to endanger the lives of millions of Americans. Giving the new rules his full support does not excuse President Barack Obama for rejecting tougher smog limits this year. Nor does it paper over the administration's weakness in ceding a new water cleanup plan to Florida, which has dragged out the process for years. But the mercury limits will make for a much healthier America — so long as the administration, industry and the states see them through.