The EPA, Mercury and Health Benefits: What is the Cost?

(Salim Virji: Flickr)

(Salim Virji: Flickr)

The E.P.A issued its first ever standards on mercury pollution from coal and oil-burning power plants yesterday, and the topic was the subject of a fervid debate on KQED’s Forum this morning.

Just about the only thing Michael Brune, of the Sierra Club, and Scott Segal, of the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, could agree on was that mercury is, indeed, a neurotoxin, a poison that causes reproductive and developmental disorders, including lower IQs. But whether the new standards will net the public health and environmental benefits the EPA claims was in dispute.

The EPA’s new standards seek to reduce not just mercury but also other toxic air pollutants such as arsenic, acid gas, nickel, selenium, and cyanide. 

In a statement, the EPA reported “the new safeguards will prevent as many as 11,000 premature deaths and 4,700 heart attacks a year. The standards will also help America’s children grow up healthier – preventing 130,000 cases of childhood asthma symptoms and about 6,300 fewer cases of acute bronchitis among children each year.”

On Forum this morning Segal argued these public health pluses aren’t coming from mercury reductions. Instead they’re the result of co-benefits detailed on State of Health last month. The public health improvements, Segal said, come from getting particulate matter, otherwise known as soot, out of the air. And that’s already happening, he insisted.

“Our argument,” Segal said, “is other parts of the Clean Air Act that are purposely targeted and designed to reduce particulate matter are doing so to levels fully protective of human health and the environment, including for susceptible populations like children, the elderly and asthmatics.”

Brune was unfazed. “I’m surprised that we’re actually arguing about this rule,” he said. “This is a rule that will reduce by 90 percent the amount of mercury in the environment, a potent neurotoxin which means it’s a brain poison. … It will also reduce the amount of arsenic, dioxins, acid gases in the atmosphere. For every dollar of cost, we’re getting a least nine dollars in benefits, and that’s only measuring the amount of benefits from reduced soot.”

But at what total cost, Segal wanted to know. “No one doubts the fact that mercury is a neurotoxin, it absolutely is.” (Ah, the point of agreement.) “The question is whether this rule produces tangible benefits in this area,” Segal said. “The rule costs about $10 billion. Of the $10 billion, the EPA admits the amount of benefit to be achieved by reducing the amount of mercury that would be achieved by this rule could be as low as $500,000.”

The new rule could still be blocked by Congress or the courts, but if it goes forward, the EPA says the mercury standard, in combination with the final Cross-State Air Pollution Rule which was issued earlier this year, are ”the most significant steps to clean up pollution from power plant smokestacks since the Acid Rain Program of the 1990s.”

No matter how you feel about the new mercury standards and coal-fired power plants, the EPA’s reach obviously extends only to the edges of this country. Near the end of Forum, a caller pointed out that air pollution is a global issue. Brune shared the “good news” that China, for example, is making its coal plants more efficient. “The bad news is that every time China builds a new coal plant, they’re locking in that dirty technology for the next 40 years. Here on the west coast, there is lots of disturbing data that we’re breathing the pollution that’s produced all the way over in China.”

You can listen to the full episode of Forum here.

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