This Friday, the Obama administration has the historic opportunity to rein in a coal industry that has been allowed to pour toxic emissions like mercury, benzene and arsenic into our lives without limit.
There’s little question that the administration will set limits – the law requires it and the courts have ordered it. The question, and the opportunity facing Obama, is how strong those limits will be.
For more than two decades, the powerful coal industry has dodged stricter pollution limits while countless other industries have cleaned up their acts. They have operated without national restraints on the amount of mercury and other toxic air pollution released from power plant smokestacks. The court order ending this free pass is the result of relentless Earthjustice litigation.
The industry isn’t giving up, however. It is ferociously lobbying to weaken and postpone those safeguards. Coal lobbyists are depicting the Environmental Protection Agency’s new standards as job killers without acknowledging that coal pollution costs lives. They would have us forget that more than half of all coal-fired power plants have already deployed widely available pollution control technologies and managed to stay open for business. They have also claimed, falsely, that the new rules will compromise electric reliability. Recent reports by the Department of Energy and by business groups and industry analysts repeatedly say otherwise.
These red herrings distract from the life-saving mission of stricter pollution controls. Coal-fired power plants are responsible for 99 percent of mercury emissions, and those emissions have led to warnings against eating fish from mercury-contaminated lakes and streams across America. Children exposed to mercury in the womb or at a young age are at risk of impaired brain function, neurological problems and reduced IQ.
Americans are standing up for clean air and strong safeguards that bring an end to mercury pollution from power plants. People have traveled to Washington from across the country to be heard on this issue, and in the largest outpouring of public comment on a rule ever received by the EPA, 900,000 Americans have written to the agency to support a strong rule. Many of the power companies, including large utilities like Duke Energy and Exelon, are expressing support for strong safeguards.
According to a report by the Environmental Integrity Project, the 50 worst mercury polluters generated nearly half of the power plant industry’s total mercury emissions. It’s time that this minority of bad actors plays by the same rules as everyone else. As these plants are forced to clean up or shut up, clean energy sources like wind and solar can move into the marketplace, creating green jobs that don’t sacrifice public health.
In recent months, President Obama has shown his commitment to creating a clean energy economy by ordering a review of the Keystone XL pipeline and proposing new fuel economy standards that will save drivers more than $80 billion at the pump each year while dramatically reducing carbon pollution. By staying strong on these new air toxics rules for power plants, he will signal his intent to continue down the road to a clean energy future.