Eighteen national and state medical, public health, civil rights, environmental, and clean air groups filed a brief late Thursday with the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals defending the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) against industry lawsuits aimed at dismantling those rules, and blocking long-overdue reductions in highly toxic air pollutants including mercury, arsenic, chromium, nickel, and acid gases from existing coal- and oil-fired power plants.
(Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice)
The groups assert the lawsuit has no basis, and should be dismissed. Under the 1990 Amendments to the Clean Air Act, these standards already were more than a decade overdue when the EPA finalized them in December 2011 and are based on successful control measures already in place in many plants.
“With elevated rates of lung cancer, asthma hospitalizations and deaths, mercury poisoning from subsistence fishing and more, for African Americans the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards provide lifesaving protection from the myriad life-sapping toxic chemicals we have been exposed to for decades since we bear the brunt of living near coal fired power plants,” said Jacqui Patterson Director, Environmental and Climate Justice Program for NAACP. “The NAACP’s civil and human rights mission compels us to stand behind the EPA and make sure this rule is upheld as a mechanism for protecting the rights of communities to breathe clean air, drink clean water, and live on uncontaminated land.”
The NAACP has highlighted the civil rights issues related to clean air, citing the fact that 68 percent of African Americans live within 30 miles of a coal-fired power plant. Also, an African American family making $50,000 per year is more likely to live next to a toxic facility than a white American family making $15,000 per year.
“Power plants spew corrosive acid gases, carcinogens like formaldehyde, and toxic metals—a long list of hazards that rain down on nearby communities or travel miles downwind,” said Janice Nolen, Assistant Vice President, National Policy, for the American Lung Association. “We need these standards to protect not only our children, but older adults, people with lung disease, heart disease, or diabetes, and the poor from toxic air pollution. They cannot protect themselves.”
Coal- and oil-fired power plants are the largest industrial source of air toxics, annually emitting more than 386,000 tons of 84 separate toxics, including arsenic, cadmium, chromium, nickel, selenium, acid gases, and mercury. Even in small doses these pollutants cause serious, often irreversible risks of cancer, birth defects, neurodevelopmental problems in children, and chronic and acute health disorders to people’s respiratory and central nervous systems including nerve and organ damage. They also cause serious harms to wildlife, including reproductive and behavioral disorders, and to ecosystems, including acidification of our nation’s waterways.
Power plants account for approximately half of all the nation’s mercury emissions. Many waters with mercury-based fish consumption advisories have no identifiable source of mercury other than airborne emissions, and many of these waters supply food to subsistence fishermen who have no other alternative but to eat contaminated fish, thereby further harming an economically disadvantaged population. Mercury exposure threatens prenatal development, infants and young children. The EPA has estimated that every year, more than 300,000 newborns may face elevated risk of learning disabilities due to exposure to toxic forms of mercury in the womb. Mercury contamination in fish also causes serious damage to wildlife.
EPA’s MATS requirements will annually prevent up to 11,000 premature deaths, nearly 5,000 heart attacks and 130,000 asthma attacks. Additionally, the standards will help avoid more than 540,000 days when people have to miss work because of health problems associated with power plant pollution. These “sick” days diminish economic productivity and raise health care costs.
Attorneys for the Clean Air Task Force filed the brief Thursday on behalf of the coalition of public health and environmental organizations defending the MATS rule.
Groups submitting today’s legal arguments, and their counsel, are the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Lung Association, American Nurses Association, American Public Health Association and Physicians for Social Responsibility, (represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center); Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Clean Air Council, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and Sierra Club (represented by Earthjustice), Citizens for Pennsylvania’s Future, Conservation Law Foundation, Environment America, Izaak Walton League of America, Natural Resources Council of Maine, and Ohio Environmental Council (represented by the Clean Air Task Force), and the Environmental Defense Fund, Natural Resources Defense Council, and Waterkeeper Alliance.