Air Pollution Price Tag—Our Health or Their Wealth

EPA prepares move against those who pollute at our expense

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Too often in the last two decades, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has gnawed big polluters like a toothless tiger. But 20 years after Congress endowed the agency with new tools to protect people from dangerous air pollution, the EPA is finally preparing to bite down hard.

The EPA is expected to finalize over the next few years a series of pollution control rules that could cut global warming pollution, improve air quality and protect the health of millions of Americans. But only if the agency gets it right—and big polluters will be fighting to make sure it doesn’t.

This is especially true in the case of coal-fired power plants, which are targeted by many of the forthcoming rules. The coal and utility industries have retained an army of lobbyists and congressional champions to kill pollution controls and convince the American public that burning massive amounts of coal and protecting the environment aren’t mutually exclusive.

But they are.

Coal-fired power plants are the largest industrial source of mercury and global warming pollution in the nation. They also are major sources of pollution that leads to smog and the contamination of water by heavy metals. Getting these facilities to follow the law and clean up will require an engaged public, so we’ll be calling on you—our supporters—many times between now and the end of 2012 to join us in advocating for strong rules.

The EPA is under a court-ordered deadline to issue rules by March 2011 that will limit emissions of mercury and other toxic air pollutants from coal-fired power plants. Also in 2011, the agency is expected to adopt limits on global warming pollution from coal-fired power plants. This critical rule is perhaps the best way to reduce the impacts of global warming and clear the way for a clean energy future. Fierce opposition to this rule is expected from industry, some members of Congress, and even some within the Obama administration.

Already moving along are rules to cut ozone pollution and regulate coal ash, the toxic material that remains after coal is burned. Tens of thousands of Earthjustice supporters have contacted the EPA about these proposals, and we will continue to alert you of ways to voice your opinions on these important proposals.

Recent good news demonstrates that our advocacy has paid off. Earlier this month, the EPA released final rules to slash emissions of mercury, particulate matter, acid gases and other dangerous pollutants from cement kilns. The projected benefits of these pollution cuts outweigh the costs to industry by as much as 19 to 1. Despite industry’s shrill, fear-mongering response, the new rules’ positive impact on people and the environment is undeniable.

Securing strong final rules took serious work. After initial rules to clean up cement kilns were proposed in May 2009, the main trade group for the cement industry pushed hard to weaken them. But Earthjustice and its allies mobilized a large response as well. Supporters attended public hearings, sent thousands of emails, made phone calls and urged the EPA to stand strong.

We’ll need to organize similar efforts for all of the upcoming rules, because big polluters certainly haven’t lost their touch. Mouthpieces for industry have expertly cajoled and threatened their way out of complying with the Clean Air Act before. That won’t change because change does not benefit the polluter.

Year after year, industry benefits financially from lax control while we get stuck with the bill: asthma, heart attacks, birth defects, cancer and other serious ailments. Moreover, the entire planet faces the specter of uncontrolled climate change, for which the aforementioned industries, particularly coal-fired power plants, are culpable.

The EPA’s upcoming rules can help correct this imbalance. It is the responsibility of all concerned citizens to ensure that the agency’s efforts are all bite so that big polluters aren’t allowed to slip away again.

Trip Van Noppen served as Earthjustice’s president from 2008 until he retired in 2018. A North Carolina native, Trip said of his experience: “Serving as the steward of Earthjustice for the last decade has been the greatest honor of my life.”