Clearing the air on mercury


Eight percent of women of child-bearing age in this country have mercury levels in their blood that could cause lower IQ in their children. That fact alone justifies the tough but achievable regulations issued this week by the Obama administration to control mercury pollution from coal-fired plants. Industry complaints shouldn’t convince anyone otherwise.

Despite the cries of outrage from conservative Republicans, the regulations are neither job-killers nor the result of Democratic regulatory overreach. A federal appeals court ruled decisively on the subject in 2008, affirming the Environmental Protection Agency’s obligation to reduce mercury pollution and rejecting the do-little proposals of the George W. Bush administration. That administration also delayed for nine months the release of the report that revealed the high levels of mercury in women, until it was finally leaked to the press.

Many states were ahead of the federal government in cracking down on mercury emissions, and they did so without experiencing appreciable job losses as a result. About half the coal plants in the nation already use the technology called for in the new federal regulations and will find it easy to meet the new requirements. The regulations also will reduce the amounts of 70 other pollutants, including arsenic, lead and cadmium, spewed through smokestacks.


For some coal plants it will be more difficult to meet the new rules. Older plants will need expensive retrofits and some might find it more cost-effective to close, but many of those plants were expected to be retired even before now. The overall cost of the regulations is expected to reach $10 billion a year, with homeowners paying perhaps 3% more on their electricity bills. But it’s not as though the country hasn’t been paying that and more over the years; the price of high pollution levels has simply been pushed into the health sector in the form of higher rates of illness.

The regulations are especially good news after President Obama backed away earlier this year from imposing new smog rules proposed by the EPA because of the political battles he would have faced in Congress. His decisive and praiseworthy action on coal-plant pollution will be fought. Lawsuits against the rules are expected, and the House already has passed legislation that would strip the EPA of authority to regulate mercury from coal plants, though that destructive proposal would face major obstacles in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

But for today, the message is a welcome and long-overdue one: The country will no longer tolerate the health toll caused by emissions of mercury and other highly toxic pollutants from coal plants.