EPA’s War on Toxic Pollution

A central theme of Sen. Mitch McConnell’s (R-KY) recent re-election campaign was attacking the Obama administration’s so-called “war on coal.” This framing was an attempt to stigmatize the critically important efforts by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to reduce the impacts on public health and the environment of burning coal in power plants and heavy industry. In fact, EPA is conducting a war on the health impacts caused by pollution and industrial waste, using science and technology as its weapons.

Specifically, EPA’s 2012 Mercury and Air Toxics rule would require that power plants that burn coal or oil substantially reduce their emissions of a slew of toxic air pollutants, including mercury, hydrogen chloride, hydrogen fluoride, selenium, arsenic, cadmium, hexavalent chromium, and nickel. Coal burned in power plants is by far our nation’s largest source of mercury and also the largest source of hydrogen chloride, hydrogen fluoride, and selenium. Depending on the degree of exposure, the health effects from these pollutants can include nausea, vomiting, central nervous system damage, kidney damage, and lung, skin, and mucus membrane damage. Arsenic and hexavalent chromium are known cancer-causing agents, and cadmium and nickel are classified as probable human carcinogens.

The same controls needed to reduce these toxic pollutants also significantly reduce emissions of toxic particles (or “soot”) that have been found in hundreds of studies to be linked to premature death and disease. As highlighted in the Center for Effective Government's July 2014 report The Benefits of Public Protections: Ten Rules That Save Lives and Protect the Environment, this rule will prevent between 4,200 and 11,000 adult deaths, 20 infant deaths, 2,800 cases of chronic bronchitis, 4,700 heart attacks, more than 2,600 hospital admissions for lung and heart disease, 3,100 emergency room visits by children with asthma, and 130,000 asthma attacks in children each year, among other health benefits.

McConnell has also set his sights on blocking EPA’s pending rules limiting the emission of greenhouse gases from power plants that are a major source of climate change. His opposition defies the evidence that strong limits on carbon pollution from existing power plants could improve air quality and prevent an estimated 3,500 premature deaths, along with other significant health benefits.

The anti-regulatory zealots in Congress promoting the interests of large polluting industries – industries that contribute large sums to their campaigns – also have their sights on EPA’s pending proposal to strengthen the national air quality standard for ozone pollution. The current ozone standard, adopted under the Bush administration in 2008, set an allowable level of air pollution well above what independent science advisors recommended to EPA a decade ago. (Former EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson called it “legally indefensible.”) EPA, now under a court-ordered schedule to complete its review of the current ozone limit, is poised to propose a new standard on Dec. 1 that is expected to fall within the range recommended by the scientific advisors and issue a final rule by October 2015. Depending on the acceptable level of pollution EPA sets, the revised standard will result in modest or substantial reductions in asthma attacks, hospitalizations for respiratory conditions, and premature death from lung diseases, among other health benefits.

McConnell, who will become the Senate Majority Leader in January, has pledged to use a variety of tactics to undermine the Mercury and Air Toxics rule, the new greenhouse gas rules, and a revised ozone standard. These include cutting EPA’s budget and/or including stipulations (“riders”) in congressional budget appropriations that constrain the agency's ability to issue or implement new rules. It promises to be a busy time for environmental and advocacy groups like ours fighting to defend and improve public health standards. We’ll need the public to stand with us.

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