Voices From Across the Region: Tell EPA to Limit Mercury Pollution

Guest Blog | May 31, 2011 | Coal, Energy Policy
Crowds gather early for the mercury hearing at EPA headquarters in Atlanta.
Crowds gather early for the mercury hearing at EPA Region 4 headquarters in Atlanta.

Atlanta was the perfect location for May 26th’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) public hearing to discuss a proposed new rule to limit mercury and other hazardous air pollutants from power plants. Within 75 miles of Atlanta there are seven coal plants with 27 coal-burning “boilers.” Some of these boilers were built over 60 years ago and in all that time they have not had advanced environmental upgrades to control for mercury and other air pollutants.

According to the EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory, five of these seven plants are among the top mercury emitters in the entire Southeast. In total, in 2005 alone, these seven plants emitted over 4,000 pounds of mercury. Looking at the broader region, the Southeast has nearly 300 coal boilers at almost 90 different coal plants. These facilities pumped over 20,000 pounds of mercury into the air in 2005. Given these astounding numbers, it is no surprise that many citizens turned up in downtown Atlanta to tell EPA that they support strong limits on mercury pollution.

Over one hundred people spoke at the hearing and the vast majority spoke in favor of protecting public health and the environment. In fact, only about 15 individuals signed up to speak against the proposal while nearly 100 individuals spoke in support of this crucial and legally mandated rule to limit toxic air pollution.

EPA’s proposed rule would set limits on how much mercury and other toxic air pollutants power plants can emit and it will require many plants to upgrade with modern pollution controls. These controls will not only limit mercury and air toxics, but they will also have collateral benefits of reducing ozone and particulate matter. Speakers explained that these pollution reductions would save thousands of lives each year, reduce hospital and emergency room visits and ultimately create as much as $130 billion dollars in net benefits. The rule, they explained, will also lead to tens of thousands of temporary jobs and 9,000 permanent jobs due in large part to construction and environmental upgrade technologies.

Comments spanned over a range of topics from impacts on young children to young adults, the costs and benefits of imposing first-ever limits on air toxics, opinions of people of faith and even the pride that power companies take in their ability to control numerous pollutants. Here are a few highlights:

Speaking of how long coal utilities have had to prepare for these regulations, “The Clean Air Act Amendments, which are almost older than me, are supposed to… keep me and all other young people safe and healthy.
-Eriqah Foreman-Williams, Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, Georgia Coal Diversity Organizer

Encouraging EPA to adopt the new standards, “It is the right thing to do for our health, for our security and for our nation.
-Georgia State Representative Scott Holcomb

When power companies ask for more time before EPA implements these new limits they are saying that “they need more time to kill us.
-Sierra Club organizer and Kentucky resident Tom Pearce

Representing the significance of water to people of faith, “we are Baptizing our children in mercury-laden water.
-Reverend Woody Bartlett, Co-Founder, Georgia Interfaith Power & Light

Summing up the delay and public health benefits very concisely, “Frankly, it is long past time to clean these toxins up.
-H. James Gooden of South Carolina, Chair of the National Board of Directors, American Lung Association

SACE Federal Policy Director Jen Rennicks displayed her daughter's whimsical but unfortuantly necessary inhaler
SACE Federal Policy Director Jen Rennicks displayed her daughter's whimsical but unfortunately necessary inhaler

Only a handful of opponents turned up at the hearing, a surprise, given that Atlanta is the corporate headquarters of Southern Company, the region’s largest coal plant owner. Few Southern Company representatives or other opponents of this rule challenged the very real developmental, neurological and respiratory health benefits of the proposal. Instead, they argued that it is too expensive or that EPA didn’t give coal plant operators enough notice and time to upgrade. They threatened skyrocketing rates, electric shortages and job loss despite the fact that EPA has carried out extensive and extremely detailed analysis of these issues.

Contrary to these claims, however, EPA’s own Regulatory Impact Analysis demonstrated that if this rule led to any rate increases they would be minimal, that there was no danger of power outages, and EPA will continue to work with electric reliability organizations to ensure plentiful electricity availability and, as mentioned above, that the rule is actually expected to create new jobs.

Southern Company representative Chris Hobson argued that this rule was too important and too far reaching to come from EPA. Instead he pleaded that we first have a national energy debate from which Congress will issue mercury and air toxic rules. Of course, there already was a bi-partisan Congressional debate over the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments. The debate, in fact, resulted in broad amendments, signed into law by President George H.W. Bush, which directed EPA to study and then issue these very rules. Succinctly: Mr. Hobson already had his national debate. It came out in a way that his industry does not like, so they have spent the past 20 years undermining the results.

SACE's Diversity and Community Outreach Coordinator Seandra Rawls prepares to have hear hair clipped and tested for mercury
SACE's Diversity and Community Outreach Coordinator Seandra Rawls prepares to have her hair clipped and tested for mercury

Aside from all the detailed policy talk inside the hearing, the day also had fun but important outside events. Several groups including the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy organized a free mercury hair testing event and press conference just down the street from the hearing. The hair testing was offered at Vintage Barber Shop to anybody interested in learning about the mercury build-up in their own bodies. The press conference featured speakers like Robin Mann, President of the Sierra Club Board of Directors and Dr. Yolanda Whyte, a local pediatrician and SACE volunteer who recently authored an excellent mercury Op-Ed in the Atlanta Journal Constitution that ran the day of the Atlanta hearing. Both Ms. Mann and Dr. Whyte spoke powerfully about the impacts of coal plant pollution and the importance of EPA’s proposed mercury rule.

Around dinnertime the Coosa River Basin Initiative hosted a fish fry. Fish are one of the primary pathways through which mercury travels from power plant pollution to humans. The event was an important reminder that mercury can interfere with some of our most treasured traditions some as simple as an otherwise healthy family meal.

EPA will continue to receive written comments encouraging them to follow through on this significant and protective proposal. Unfortunately, EPA recently delayed several other critical regulations, including air standards for ozone, another mercury rule, which applied to sources other than power plants, and coal ash regulations.

To make sure EPA knows that this power plant mercury rule is simply too essential to delay, you can still take action until July 5 by sending EPA written comments telling them why you support this rule and that speedy implementation is crucial to protect human health and the environment.

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