We in Wisconsin can be grateful that the Environmental Protection Agency recently issued national regulations to reduce mercury and other toxic pollutants emitted by power plants. Burning coal to generate electricity releases dangerous gases, including arsenic, cyanide, nickel and mercury, into our air; among the most toxic is mercury.
While the new regulations are a step in the right direction, the truth is they were put off for 20 years, and they still are subject to legal challenges in the courts. Further, existing clean air regulations are constantly under attack by industry and by many lawmakers. Unfounded claims that such regulations will hurt or hinder economic growth have ruled the day for too long.
The League of Women Voters has for 92 years encouraged citizens to participate in their democracy. With long-held positions supporting the health of children and families, we urge you to learn all you can about clean air issues and to let your federal elected officials know that you support the new Clean Air mercury standards. Through the league’s “Clean Air Promise” campaign, we hope to inform and engage Americans on the issue of clean air and to demonstrate what is at stake.
The Clean Air Act that was signed into law by President Nixon in 1970 sought to improve our air quality. It has been highly successful in reducing particulate pollutants. However, since the 1980s physicians and scientists have recognized that the regulations were inadequate to protect us from mercury and other toxic air emissions, and they have recommended that the EPA sharply limit these pollutants.
In 1990, the act was amended to require reductions of toxic air pollutants, including those from power plants. It was not until December 2011 that the Environmental Protection Agency, backed by the Obama administration, issued the first national Mercury and Air Toxics Standards for Power Plants – more than 20 years after passage of the amendments that required the standards. Power plants are responsible for half of the nation’s mercury emissions. These long overdue standards will reduce mercury emissions by 90 percent, making our environment significantly safer for humans.
Each year, 48 million tons of toxic mercury alone goes up in the smoke from coal-burning power plants. Mercury is a potent, potentially deadly neurotoxin. Its worst effects are felt by the young, wreaking havoc with the development of children’s nervous systems, affecting vision, hearing, speech and motor development. Even the unborn can be poisoned by the mercury in their mother’s blood, and one out of 10 women in America has mercury levels high enough to affect the development of an unborn child. In Wisconsin, every single waterway in our state is listed as containing unsafe levels of mercury.
Data collected by the American Lung Association, the Sierra Club and the federal government indicate that living within 30 miles of a high-emitting power plant increases incidence of asthma, heart attacks and other lung disorders. Widely available and economically feasible technology exists in the form of scrubbers, dry sorbent injection and activated carbon to remove mercury vapors and other toxic emissions from the power plant exhaust. The cost of installation is far less than the medical costs of treating affected humans.
For too long, polluters have focused the debate on “overregulation” and false assertions that environmental protections hurt our economy. Our economy suffers from pollution in the form of tens of thousands of asthma attacks, increased hospital visits, and even deaths every year. Clean air standards not only protect our health, but provide a significant economic benefit to our economy.
Congress made a promise to us when it passed the Clean Air Act in 1970 to protect future generations from pollutants like smog, soot, carbon and mercury. Now it is up to all of us to keep that promise. To learn more about the Clean Air Promise, visit http://peoplenotpolluters.org/
Melanie G. Ramey is president of the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin Education Network.