The Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday issued the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards for coal-burning power plants. This is great news.
Here in the Four Corners, we have been inundated with mercury, arsenic, acid gas, nickel, selenium and cyanide from coal plants for many years.
Over the last 10 years, the Four Corners Power Plant west of Farmington has poured more than 2 million pounds of pollutants into the air, including more than 6,000 pounds of mercury, nearly 3,000 pounds each of carcinogenic chromium and nickel, more than 3,700 pounds of lead, and nearly a half million pounds of hydrochloric acid.
Last year alone, Four Corners pumped 465 pounds of mercury into the air.
For the San Juan Generating Station, also west of Farmington, the numbers are similar, with more than 4,600 pounds of mercury and more than 2,100 pounds of lead emitted over the last 10 years.
Mercury is a lump of coal that keeps on giving. According to the EPA, Mercury has been shown to harm the nervous systems of children exposed in the womb, impairing thinking, learning and early development.
It also bio-accumulates, which means that it builds up in fatty tissue and is passed from fish to humans, as well as to eagles and other birds of prey. Locally, we have seen mercury in fish at levels high enough to limit how many of them we should eat. Reduced levels going into our airshed will mean less going into our streams and lakes.
The other air pollutants that will be reduced are also deadly. Arsenic, chromium and nickel are known human carcinogens that can cause lung, bladder, kidney and skin cancer. Acid gases such as hydrogen chloride and hydrogen fluoride cause lung damage and contribute to asthma, bronchitis and other chronic respiratory disease, especially in children and the elderly.
The coal plants that have already installed appropriate pollution controls are testimony to the effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of these safeguards. The utilities that are opposing the safeguards want to continue polluting while others are cutting pollution.
The new rules are not a surprise; power plants have known since 1990 that they would need to reduce toxic emissions under the Clean Air Act, and many have planned ahead and done so. In fact, more than half of all U.S. coal plants are currently meeting the EPAs proposed limits for mercury through a variety of control technologies, including scrubbers, bag houses and carbon-injection systems.
The value of the health benefits of pollution controls outweigh their costs by at least 5 to 1 and as much as 13 to 1. In other words, every dollar spent to cut toxics from coal plants will result in $5 to $13 in health benefits by saving up to 17,000 lives a year and preventing thousands of heart attacks and hospital and emergency room visits, and hundreds of thousands of asthma attacks and missed work days.
Clearly this is a great present to everyone living downwind of a coal power plant, and here in the San Juan Basin we have real reason to celebrate.
firstname.lastname@example.org. Dan Randolph is executive director of the San Juan Citizens Alliance.