In 2011, the Environmental Protection Agency launched a major effort to reduce mercury and other hazardous air pollutants from coal-fired power plants – standards that could avert up to 11,000 premature deaths, 4,700 heart attacks and 130,000 childhood asthma attacks each year. At the behest of the coal industry, a coalition of coal-producing states sued to stop the rules.
Now Scott Pruitt, a man who led the attack, could take control of the agency he sued.
As Oklahoma attorney general, Pruitt joined not one but two lawsuits against the EPA to block mercury and air toxics standards under the Clean Air Act. So far, such efforts have failed, and the new rules have cut mercury emissions from coal plants by more than 40,000 pounds per year.
Not surprisingly, many people who benefit the most from the mercury initiative live in states that that rely heavily on coal-powered plants. The EPA predicts that the new law will prevent 560 premature deaths a year in Ohio, 530 in Pennsylvania, 410 in Michigan and 300 in Pruitt’s home state of Oklahoma. (Find out here how many premature deaths will be prevented by the rules Pruitt fought so hard to kill in your own state.)
The driving source of mercury contamination comes from the billowing emissions of coal-burning power plants that provide electricity for much of the U.S. east of the Rocky Mountains. But burning coal also releases mercury into the food chain.
Airborne mercury settles on lakes, streams and oceans where it builds up in seafood and shellfish. Seafood is the top source of mercury exposure for humans, including for infants whose mothers regularly ate foods with high mercury levels, such as tuna, during pregnancy. Prenatal exposure to too much mercury can seriously harm children’s brain development and behavior.
When the Obama administration announced the new rules, the EPA noted that more than half of the nation’s coal-fired power plants were already relying on widely available, proven pollution controls. The EPA said the new standards would “level the playing field by ensuring the remaining plants – about 40 percent of all coal-fired power plants – take similar steps to decrease dangerous pollutants.”
The EPA estimates the economic benefits of the mercury and air toxics standards at between $37 billion and $90 billion per year. By contrast, the estimated cost to the coal industry to conform to the rule was just $9.6 billion.
The Supreme Court rejected the challenge by Pruitt and other attorneys general, but if Pruitt is confirmed by the Senate in his hearing next week, he will be in position to muck up other landmark initiatives to cut air pollution. It would be tragic if the agency charged with protecting the health and safety America’s children instead defends the polluters.