UPDATE 6/21/2012: Yesterday the Senate rejected a measure that would overturn an EPA regulation to cut mercury and other toxic chemical emissions from coal-fired power plants. The resolution, sponsored by Senator James Inhoofe (R-Oklahoma), failed 46-53. Click here to see how your senators voted.
Until recently, a host of harmful chemicals emitted by power plants went unregulated. Some are known to cause cancer, others are neurotoxins that build up in waterways and wildlife. Last December, the Environmental Protection Agency announced long-overdue limits on mercury and other toxic air pollutants. But only six months later, these regulations are under attack.
Senator Jim Inhofe (R-Oklahoma) is fighting the new regulations, calling them “a war on affordable energy.” He argues that the restrictions will drive up energy costs, “bankrupt the coal industry,” and eliminate jobs. Inhofe is using the obscure Congressional Review Act, which allows Congress to overturn federal regulations, to block the EPA’s new emission standards.
“This legislative weapon is the nuclear weapon of congress with the radioactive spillover effect that poisons the landscape for officials trying to follow the law to protect the American people," said John Walke, Clean Air Director of the Natural Resources Defense Council, to CNN.
Power plants are the largest source of mercury emissions into the air, responsible for an estimated 50 percent of mercury emissions and 77 percent of acid gas emissions. When power plants burns coal, they emit a variety of heavy metals like mercury, arsenic, chromium, and nickel. Mercury is a neurotoxin, and the other pollutants are known or suspected to cause cancer and other serious ailments. They also have an equally harmful effect on wildlife.
Once airborne mercury reaches water, bacteria change it into methylmercury. Methylmercury, like the pesticide DDT, can accumulate in the bodies of fish. When wildlife – or people – eat that fish, mercury makes its way up the food chain in larger concentrations.
Mercury exposure in unborn children is linked to nervous system damage, and the EPA estimates that limiting mercury emissions will avoid 4,200 to 11,00 premature deaths. The regulations also limit emissions of sulfur-dioxide and fine particulate matter, which exacerbate asthma and other respiratory problems. Limiting sulfur-dioxide will even help plants breath easier, because it contributes to acid rain.
Wildlife also suffers from mercury exposure. Dangerously high levels of mercury have been observed in fish-eating bird species like bald eagles and ospreys. Mercury is also linked to disruptions in nesting behavior in small songbirds.
Under the existing regulation, utilities would have three years to comply with the new rule. Another proposal in the works by Senators Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee) and Mark Pryor (D-Arkansas) would extend that period to six years.
But Inhofe is pushing for killing the rule entirely, insisting that the regulations are “backed by false claims and EPA propaganda.” If he is successful, the new regulations will be completely overturned, rather than revised or delayed. A vote is expected as early as next week.
ACT NOW! Voice your support for limiting hazardous emissions from coal-fired power plants. Contact your Senators and tell them to support the EPA’s new Mercury and Air Toxic Standards.