The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency unveiled historic new rules on Wednesday that would limit the mercury, arsenic and other toxic pollutants in America's air, water and food.
Standing with pediatricians, public health experts and industry representatives at Children's National Medical Center in Washington, D.C., EPA administrator Lisa Jackson called the first-ever Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, or MATS, for power plant emissions a "great victory for public health, especially the health of our children."
In addition to preventing up to 11,000 premature deaths and 130,000 cases of aggravated asthma among children annually by 2016, as well as other health benefits estimated by the EPA, Jackson noted the rule would provide a net increase in American jobs with no risk to the country's power supply.
"The lights will stay on and we will have cleaner air," said Jackson.
For the more than 20 years since the EPA was first tasked with considering toxic air pollutants under the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments, a battle has waged between public health advocates, who have touted the benefits of stricter standards, and industry lobbyists, who have argued that such standards would threaten jobs and raise energy prices for Americans.
Meanwhile, the EPA has issued over 110 standards to cut toxic air pollution from other sources, including oil refineries and steel plants. Power plants remained a "notable and notorious exception," said John Walke, director of the clean air program for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
"The electric power sector is far and away the largest emitter of toxic air pollution in America," he told The Huffington Post. "Yet it's escaped responsibility to clean up while far smaller sources like dry cleaners in your neighborhood have already cleaned up their toxic air emissions."
The EPA's own analysis estimates that the newly finalized rules would put the industry out about $10 billion a year and save the country $90 billion in health care costs.
In other words, for every dollar spent under the rule, said Jackson, there would be "up to $9 of health benefits."
The EPA's estimates are actually a small fraction of what could be gained under the new rules, according to experts. The agency could only account for reductions in asthma attacks, heart attacks and strokes, among other health problems associated with soot (or particulates). The prevention of cognitive disorders, kidney disease and cancers caused by mercury, dioxins, arsenic, lead and other toxins was omitted due to limited data.
Part of the problem, according to Jim Pew, a staff attorney for the nonprofit Earthjustice, is that industry has "done their best to stall or block" the kind of research needed to quantify these benefits.
"Both mercury and particulates can be controlled if power plants put proper scrubbers on," said Dr. Philip Landrigan, chairman of the department of preventative medicine at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. "The scrubbers cost money. But the loss of IQ caused by mercury and respiratory disorders caused by fine particles is also very expensive."
In fact, Dr. Landrigan's own research has put a price tag on at least one of the EPA's missing pieces: the loss of IQ due to mercury.
Between 300,000 and 600,000 of the 4 million babies born in the U.S. each year are exposed to significant amounts of the neurotoxin while in the womb, he said. "These babies all suffer losses of IQ," Dr. Landrigan told HuffPost. "Each IQ point is worth money."
Dr. Landrigan and his team calculated that every IQ point is worth $10,000 in lifetime earnings. Overall, they attributed $1.3 billion every year to mercury emissions from power plants, based just on IQ losses. "That's why any action that the EPA takes to reduce mercury emissions is so incredibly important," he said.
Up to three-quarters of the mercury that goes into the atmosphere comes out of smokestacks of coal-fired power plants. Because the particles are heavier than air, the mercury eventually falls back down and is deposited in rivers, lakes and oceans, where it is converted into a more toxic form called methylmercury. This then builds up in the food chain, meaning that fish at the top, such as blue fin tuna and shark, carry the highest levels of the toxin.
"The developing brain of a fetus is exquisitely sensitive to methylmercury," said Dr. Landrigan. "At the end of the day, you have a one-time expense for the power industry or a continuing erosion of the brain power of a whole generation of American children."
Still, many representatives of the power industry maintain that even this one-time cost is too much, too soon. Power companies will have three years to install equipment or shut down old plants, with the possibility of an extension into a fourth year.
"It takes time to get environmental permits and approval from regulators. They can't comply with regulations within three years," said Melissa McHenry, spokesperson for American Electric Power, one of the nation's largest generators of electricity. "We don't have an issue with limits they want to get to, just the time frame."
"There's no way that this rule can be implemented the way it came out," added Jeff Holmstead, a former EPA official now at law firm Bracewell and Giuliani, which represents energy industry clients. "Everyone is going to be rushing at the same time to get control tech in, and they can't do that while operating. There will be localized reliability issues."
Industry will have 60 days once the rule is published to file a legal challenge.
Susan Tierney, managing principal at the Analysis Group in Boston and former assistant secretary for policy at the U.S. Department of Energy, refuted these arguments. About 1,100 coal-fired units are covered by the MATS rule, of which about 40 percent don't use modern pollution controls. Many of the power plants most affected, she said, were built before these technological advances. She also pointed to the 17 states that already have mercury controls, noting that the plants in those states are already compliant. "The technology is well known," Tierney told HuffPost.
Constellation Energy, for example, invested $885 million to add environmental controls and a new scrubber to its Brandon Shores facility in Maryland. This resulted in a 90 percent cut to mercury emissions, 1,385 jobs during peak construction, and many more jobs manufacturing the clean air technologies.
"Power plants that are old and dirty should've ended their useful life already and gone out of commission," added Michael Livermore, executive director of the Institute for Policy Integrity and adjunct professor at New York University. "We live in the 21st century. We shouldn't be using plants from 1950s."
"The benefits of this rule outweigh the costs by a huge factor," he said. "In fact, given the huge ratio of benefits to costs, we could make the rule even more strict and still generate even greater net benefits."