Improvements in the nation's air quality rules over the last four decades have always worked to prevent widespread deaths and serious illnesses from industrial pollution, spurring welcoming, if incremental, progress in public health. The Environmental Protection Agency's proposed Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, known as MACT, would build on that history by tightening controls on harmful emissions of mercury, arsenic, chromium, nickel, and acid gases, including hydrochloric and hydrofluoric acids.
These are serious metals and toxins. Medical studies have found that one of six American women of child-bearing age, for instance, now carry concentrations of mercury from environmental exposure that are high enough to seriously cripple the development, nervous system and brain capacity of a fetus. Other listed toxins cause respiratory diseases and heart failures, among other things.
Studies taken by health authorities across the country estimate the health gains from implementation of MACT standards would, on an annual basis, avoid around 11,000 premature deaths, 130,000 asthma attacks, and 5,000 non-fatal heart attacks, in addition to inhibitingneurological damage from mercury in fetuses and young children, and warding off cancers.
These statistics are backed up by such groups as the American Lung Association, American Public Health Association and American Academy of Pediatrics.
Though far-reaching, the MACT standards, through wide public participation in their making, would not require the creation of new or untested air pollution control systems. More than half the nation's electric power plants - the largest source of MACT-listed toxins and mercury - already have installed the sort of pollution control equipment needed to trap and filter out emission of these elements and toxins. Indeed, much of the reductions in MACT-listed toxins already come through use of standard technology for air pollution control equipment designed primarily to eliminate fine particle soot emissions of sulfur dioxide, which causes serious lung damage and respiratory illness and massive smog.
Unfortunately, such proposed improvements always seem to aggravate the lobbyists who protect dirty power plants, and thus to infuriate their crony Republican lieutenants. The latter have increasingly made a partisan habit of hating such rules and excoriating anyone who endorses them. That explains why Republicans jumped all over Tennessee's senior Republican senator, Lamar Alexander, last week when the Environmental Defense Fund ran $200,000 worth of a 30-second television ad thanking him for his recent vote to sustain the Senate's approval of implementation of the MACT standards.
Alexander correctly believes that reasonable air pollution rules should apply to the electric power industry, and so does the current TVA board and its chief executive, Tom Kilgore. Alexander has long urged TVA to reduce its air pollution, and its board last year adopted a schedule for retrofitting some of the last of its dirtiest air polluting plants, and shutting down the others. In any case, federal court rulings had previously upheld the EPA's legal duty to finally implement Clean Air Act rules requiring removal of toxins and mercury.
The nation's most reprobate faction of the electric utility industry, of course, has taken to calling implementation of the MACT standards a "job-killing war on coal." Their shrill election-oriented propaganda aside, nothing could be further from the truth. In reality, it's time for the dirtiest emitters to catch up with their cleaner competitors, but they simply don't want to pay for that. They had rather poison Americans' air and health, than act responsibly. That shouldn't be tolerated.