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Daily No-Brainer: Cutting Coal Plant Pollution Makes Cents

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View Stephanie Maddin's blog posts
21 March 2012, 9:29 AM
In the Senate, public health is up for debate

That coal- and oil-fired power plants are big air polluters is beyond question—they emit hundreds of thousands of tons of hazardous air pollution (mercury, lead, acid gases, e.g.), far more than any other industrial polluter. And yet, many in Congress question whether we should do anything about this major threat to public health. The debate took center stage yesterday in a subcommittee hearing of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

Sen. John Barrasso said that the costs and real benefits of cleaning up toxic air pollution from power plants are unknown. This is an incredible statement considering that extensive analysis by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has shown substantial benefits from cleaning up power plants: the prevention of up to 11,000 premature deaths, 130,000 asthma attacks and 5,000 heart attacks every year. The benefits of reducing power plant pollution could reach $90 billion each year, 9 times the cost.

Barrasso's colleague, Sen. Lamar Alexander, had a different take. He acknowledged the damage that mercury and other toxics pose to fetal development and the health of other vulnerable populations. He also conceded that power plants have evaded clean air standards for more than a decade and that the country needs to "get on with it and do it!" He then, ironically, suggested a blanket 6-year compliance timeline, which Gina McCarthy, EPA's Deputy Administrator, strongly opposed. She argued that delaying the standards any longer will severely compromise the health benefits for the American public.

Sen. Frank Lautenberg, a clean air champion, spoke personally about the death of an asthmatic sister and challenges faced by an asthmatic grandchild. He also spoke about how many diverse and low income communities bear a tremendous health burden form power plant pollution. As some hearing witnesses and Barrasso decried the “costs” of less mercury, lead, arsenic, benzene, and soot pollution, Lautenberg with conviction pounded his desk and said “if the death is in your family, you don’t ask why are they spending all this money!” But in case you do, just remember that $9 of health benefits are gained for every $1 of compliance costs. Sounds like a win-win for Americans.

The sad thing is that it will likely take some sort of large scale catastrophe to force these power plants to clean up their act (pun intended). These companies should examine M. Porter's views on Corporate Social Responsibility programs, and how they can not only solve pressing social problems, but also create competitive advantages. It's a shame that these companies can't come up with an innovative ways to reduce or eliminate pollutants, and tie those innovations to a competitive advantage. It's been done before - many companies have realized that profits are intertwined with the need to protect the citizens in the communities they serve. It's also an effective risk management/ mitigation tool, preparing them for widespread legislation changes or catastrophes. Keep fighting the good fight Steph!

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