Editorial: Name your poison: For the GOP and coal industry, it’s mercury

Dozens rally in Santa Fe, N.M., in January as the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission considers a proposal to shut down part of a coal-fired power plant.
(Susan Montoya Bryan / Associated Press)

Long before coal-fired power plants were known as major contributors to global warming, they were pegged as the primary airborne source of mercury, as well as emitters of many other pollutants.

Mercury is extremely toxic; when it falls into waterways and builds up in fish, seafood becomes dangerous enough to require warnings for children and pregnant women to limit consumption. A neurotoxin, mercury can delay development in children and result in mental disabilities or blindness.

Given the science as well as the history behind the regulation of coal-fired plants, it is dismaying that the industry and some Republican states continue to challenge the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to set new limits. And it is especially disturbing that the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear their case, which it will do Wednesday, even though its previous rulings on similar environmental matters have clearly upheld the EPA’s broad discretion to regulate such pollutants.

Mercury, arsenic and other dangerous pollutants emitted by coal plants were originally supposed to be regulated under the Clean Air Act of 1970.

As The Times reported Monday, the slow implementation of that law led to the passage of a second law in 1990, requiring the EPA to study certain pollutants, including mercury and arsenic, and to regulate the sources of those pollutants if doing so would be “appropriate and necessary.” It took a decade for the EPA to do the research and propose regulations, which were then delayed under the George W. Bush administration until an appeals court ruled in 2008 that the EPA was legally obligated to move ahead with regulations.


In other words, it’s not news that EPA intervention is required. The argument now is mainly over the cost, which the industry complains would be close to $10 billion; it says the EPA must measure that cost against the potential benefits of the reduced pollution.

There are various estimates of what would be saved by keeping these toxic materials out of the environment, mostly in the form of improved health. Industry sources say the regulations would save less than the cost of implementing them; the EPA puts the number at $37 billion or more.

But both figures pale in comparison to this: The EPA estimates that the rules would prevent 11,000 premature deaths a year, in addition to drastically reducing neurological damage, asthma and other pollution-related illness and injury. Federal anti-pollution laws exist not to save money (although sometimes they apparently do), but because they protect human lives, reduce suffering and preserve the environment.

The technology to achieve these reductions already exists and is in place at many newer coal plants, yet the industry seems to think there will never be a reasonable time for it to change its ways.

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