The EPA's Christmas Gift to Us All: Fewer Poisons in Our Air

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powerplantLast week, the EPA unveiled the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, a pair of rules that establish the first national limits on power plant emissions of mercury, arsenic, cyanide, and a host of other poisonous airborne pollutants. It's estimated that the rules, which will be phased in over the next six years, will save the country billions of dollars in health care costs.

But not everyone is pleased: For months, Republican politicians, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and assorted coal industry spokesmen have been sketching gloomy scenarios of an overstressed power grid and a nation plunged into darkness when the new rules go into effect.

It's easy to see why some people would be scared: As Dina Cappiello of the Associated Press reported, the new regulations will contribute to the closure of 32 power plants, most of them old and dirty coal burners, and 36 more may have to shut down if the cost of installing pollution controls proves too high.

However, a survey of 55 plant managers revealed that the changes, while costly in the short term, will neither be devastating for consumers nor for America's power companies. According to the survey respondents, there will be no rolling blackouts, no apocalyptic power losses, and no plants closed solely because of the new rules.

In fact, as Nicholas Bianco, senior associate for the World Resources Institute, recently noted, the new standards have been in the works for 20 years, and most plants already comply with them. According to a report issued this summer, most of the nation's top coal producers reported that "the electric industry is well positioned to comply with EPA's proposed air regulations without threatening electric system reliability."

Health Savings Vastly Exceed Industry Costs

But the changes will be significant when it comes to public health. On average, the plants that will be closing are 51 years old, and most were grandfathered in when the Clean Air Act Extension was passed in 1970. At the time, the laws stated that grandfathered plants would have to install state-of-the-art pollution controls when they updated for higher efficiency -- a move that legislators expected to occur soon after the law passed. That didn't happen. Instead, because many of those plants were fully paid off, their owners often decided that it was more cost effective to avoid updating them -- and thus also avoid installing pricey new pollution controls. In other words, the plants that will be shuttered by the new law are, by and large, inefficient, outdated, and extremely dirty.
The EPA estimates that its new rules will prevent "as many as many as 11,000 premature deaths and 4,700 heart attacks a year." Beyond that, it will also massively cut down on respiratory illnesses, "preventing 130,000 cases of childhood asthma symptoms and about 6,300 fewer cases of acute bronchitis among children each year."

While it is hard to put a price tag on reduced mercury, the EPA -- and most experts -- agree that less plants will have vast, long-term benefits for health care, will reduce developmental damage among children, and will improve the health of fisheries. Overall the EPA estimates that these improvements will pay dividends of $53 billion to $140 billion per year. By comparison, the annual cost of these new restrictions is estimated to be about $11 billion per year.

Bruce Watson is a senior features writer for DailyFinance. You can reach him by e-mail at, or follow him on Twitter at @bruce1971.
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