Hope for healthier air

Hope for healthier air

December 27th, 2011 in Opinion Times

The Jan. 10, 2009 file photo shows a flock of geese flying past a smokestack at the Jeffery Energy Center coal power plant near Emmitt, Kan.

Photo by Associated Press/Times Free Press.

Health advocacy groups have worked for decades to get the Environmental Protection Agency to require coal and oil-burning power plants to restrict emissions of mercury, dioxin, lead, arsenic and other toxic pollutants that can cause cancer, heart and developmental diseases, asthma and premature deaths. Though more than a dozen states have adopted such rules on their own to spare their citizens the health-damaging consequences of such pollution, electric power industry lobbyists have generally pressured Washington to resist establishment of federal standards on such toxins. Last week, the EPA and the Obama administration finally imposed the standards.

The new rule, 20 years in the making, marks a huge and notable Christmas gift of cleaner, healthier air in the near future. If it is fully implemented over the next four years, studies show it will save tens of thousands of lives and diminish health care costs by an estimated $90 billion.

Those estimates reflect the scale of the problem of toxins emitted by electric power plants, which remain the largest unregulated sources of such pollution. An analysis by the National Resources Defense Council, for example, found that fully half of all industrial toxic air pollution dumped into the air comes from power plants. They are the single biggest source of toxic air pollution in 29 states, and big contributors in most others.

In Tennessee, the electric power industry, which is to say TVA, emits roughly 8.9 million pounds of the 25 million pounds of air toxins emitted annually by industry. In Georgia, electric utilities emit more than 18 million pounds of the state's 42 million pounds of industrial toxic air pollution. Mercury, among the worst pollutants, is especially harmful to children, in whom it causes irreversible developmental diseases.

Contrary to the complaints of the retrograde faction of the electric power industry, the cost of removing such hazardous pollutants over the next four years -- an estimated $9.6 billion annually for some 1,400 electric generation units across the nation -- is manageable. Ralph Izzo, the CEO of New Jersey's largest electric utility and an advocate of the new rule, said his company spent just $1.3 billion -- a relatively manageable amount for emissions-control technology -- to bring all its generation units into compliance with a state standard as strict as the new federal standard.

Rizzo said the rule was "long overdue" and reasonably flexible. Similarly, Duke Power's CEO, Jim Rogers, says the rule is "tight but achievable."

Officials' views of the industry's cleaner systems haven't muted laggard utilities' predictable complaints, nor the criticism of their lackey representatives in Congress. Sen. James Inhofe, the senior and most flagrant anti-environmentalist Republican on the Environment and Public Works Committee, immediately pledged to block the rule. He called it "a thinly veiled electricity tax ...(in) the Obama administration's war on affordable energy and the latest in an unprecedented barrage of regulations that make up EPA's job-killing regulatory agenda."

What hogwash. His boiler-plate complaint (lamentably echoed by Sen. Bob Corker in a roundtable meeting he held here recently) not only ignores the health science against toxic pollutants. It also ignores the long crusade of the dirtiest faction of the electric power industry to maximize profits while dumping poisons on the public. The dirtiest emitters have spent more money fighting against the Clean Air Act of 1970 than it would have cost to retrofit their dirtiest 50-year-old plants over the past two decades.

The new rule to restrict the electric industry's worst emitters of toxic air pollution is, indeed, long overdue. Even TVA agrees its past time to clean-up or shut-down its dirtiest old plants. Resisting this rule in Congress would be myopic and wrong-headed. Americans deserve cleaner, healthier air. It's time they got it.