Lisa P. Jackson
Washington, DC: After a 21-year battle, Administrator of the US Environmental Protection Agency, Lisa P. Jackson has announced (December 21) the adoption of Mercury Air Toxics Standards. The first of its kind in the United States, it will reduce power plant emissions of mercury and other pollutants such as arsenic, acid gas, nickel, selenium and cyanide.

The EPA estimates approximately 11,000 lives will be saved from premature death and 4700 heart attacks will be prevented per year as a result of the new measures. In addition, it hopes to prevent 130,000 cases of childhood asthma symptoms and reduce cases of acute bronchitis by 6300. Speaking at the Children's National Medical Center, Administrator Jackson was clearly moved by the historic achievement, recounting that both of her two sons have suffered severe asthmatic symptoms - one spending his first Christmas in the hospital.

The Mercury and Air Toxics Standard will target the coal- and oil-fired power plants to reduce toxic emissions. Power plants are the largest remaining source of several toxic air pollutants, including mercury, arsenic, cyanide and a range of other dangerous pollutants. Overall, they are responsible for half of the mercury and over 75 percent of the acid gas emissions in the United States. These air pollutants can cause cancer and cardiovascular disease; harm the kidneys, lungs, and nervous system and can cause developmental difficulties in children.

While the health benefits of the new standard are obvious, there is clear anxiety amongst industry members - the agency received over 900,000 public comments during the development phase of the Toxics Standards. The EPA has stated that the new measures provide opportunities to grow jobs and increase efficiency in the US labor market. It estimates that to meet the new standards, approximately 46,000 short-term construction jobs will be created and 8000 long-term utility jobs. In addition, the EPA expects around 540,000 sick days to be saved from the health benefits.

Currently, 12 percent of the nation's coal-fired power plants already meet the standards, by definition. Another 48 percent have some if not all of the necessary technologies in place to meet the standards. Highlighting the flexibility of the standard's implementation, Administrator Jackson stated there would be a three-year window for compliance as well as the possibility of permitting a fourth year, if badly needed.

Overall, the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards is expected to result in health cost savings and economic benefits of around USD 90 billion annually. Combined with the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule, issued earlier this year - which requires states to significantly improve air quality by reducing power plant emissions that contribute to pollution in other states - an estimated 46,000 premature deaths, 540,000 asthma attacks among children, 24,500 emergency room visits and hospital admissions will be prevented. The two programs represent an investment in public health that will provide a total return of up to USD 380 billion to American families, in the form of longer, healthier lives and reduced health care costs.


(Photo Lisa P. Jackson © DR)