Federal Regulators Open for Comments on Mercury Pollution

mercury-comment period-epa-power plants-coal plantsThis week the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) opened a public comment period on new rules to limit mercury, arsenic, and other air toxins from oil and coal-burning power plants.  The proposed rule represents what could be the culmination of a 20-year battle to limit toxic compounds from power plant smoke stacks.  Now, with industry groups and their allies in Congress pushing for weakened pollution regulations, environmental groups are pushing to ensure clean air rules are as strong as possible when they finally go into effect. 

In 1990, Congress amended the existing Clean Air Act to mandate that toxic mercury emissions and other compounds hazardous to human health be regulated.  However twenty years of delays have prevented new mercury rules from going into effect for power plants, which represent the single biggest source of mercury in the United States.  First the original Clean Air Act amendments granted the utility industry a ten-year grace period before new power plant regulations went into effect.  Further delays arose when the former Bush administration proposed a mercury standard so weak that environmental groups sued to have it replaced. 

A court decision sided with environmentalists over the Bush standard, and the EPA was ordered to come up with a stronger mercury rule.  When the Obama administration took office, Lisa P. Jackson, the new EPA administrator, began the task of a formulating a new mercury standard.  On March 16th of this year the agency proposed a rule it says will reduce mercury pollution from burning coal by 91%. 

“Today’s announcement is 20 years in the making,” said Lisa Jackson when the proposed standard was announced, “and is a significant milestone in the Clean Air Act’s already unprecedented record of ensuring our children are protected from the damaging effects of toxic air pollution.” 

But the long fight to curb mercury pollution from power plants isn’t over yet.  On Tuesday, as required by law, the EPA opened a 60-day comment period on its proposed rule.  Meanwhile the coal and oil industries have convinced many members of Congress to try to block the new rule going into effect.  Earlier this spring Congress voted on a series of amendments that would have weakened the Clean Air Act, preventing the EPA from enforcing the mercury rule or other public health regulations.  Though each of the anti-Clean Air Act amendments was voted down on that occasion, industry-friendly lawmakers are expected to mount similar offensives in the future.

Environmental and public health groups are also busy, rallying supporters across the country in defense of the Clean Air Act.  When reports surfaced during this spring’s federal budget negotiations that President Obama might be considering a legislative compromise that would reduce the EPA’s authority, over 100,000 people sent emails to the administration is support of upholding the Clean Air Act.  The public outcry worked, and in the end the president re-affirmed his pledge to protect the nation’s most important clean air law.  That’s just one of the instances when activists have rallied recently to support an end to mercury pollution.  If they win, the health impacts will be very real for people living close to dirty power plants. 

“Like so many of us, I live near one of the nation’s 500 coal-fired power plants,” said Melissa Mosher of Sheboygan, Wisconsin, a Sierra Club volunteer and mother of two.  “The Edgewater coal-fired plant [a 770 megawatt plant owned by Wisconsin Power and Light] is just a few miles away from my house, and it’s taken its toll on all of Sheboygan. Pollutants spewing out of the plants have created black streaks in our sand and have contaminated our community.”

The Edgewater plant is one of hundreds of plants across the country that would be required to clean up its smoke stacks if new EPA rules go into effect.  To let the EPA know your thoughts on controlling mercury pollution, submit a comment online before July 5th.

Despite Green Reputation, California Dominates List of Dirtiest Air in America

While Californians may think of their state as a green leader, the American Lung Association would beg to differ. The Lung Association has released its annual “State of the Air” list of American cities with the best and worst air quality. Eight of the ten cities with the worst smog or ozone pollution are located in California and six of the worst ten cities for particle pollution are also in the Golden State.
The Lung Association uses data from the Environmental Protection Agency in determining the rankings.
The State of the Air list concluded that one in five Americans breathe dangerous levels of particle air pollution. “Particle pollution kills,” said Norman H. Edelman, M.D., American Lung Association Chief Medical Officer. “When you breathe these microscopic particles, you are inhaling a noxious mix of chemicals, metals, acid aerosols, ash and soot that is emitted from smokestacks, tailpipes, and other sources. It is as toxic as it sounds and can lead to early death, asthma exacerbations, heart attacks, strokes and emergency room visits in substantial numbers. Science clearly has proven that we need to protect the health of the public from the dangers of particle pollution.”
The list also concludes that nearly one half of Americans live in areas that have dangerous levels of ozone pollution (smog).
These troublesome conclusions comes at a time when members of Congress are threatening to roll back parts of the Clean Air Act, despite polling data that indicates bipartisan support for tougher clean air regulations. “Some in Congress are working to weaken the Clean Air Act and care more about protecting the interests of industry polluters than the health of Americans,” said Charles D. Connor, American Lung Association President and CEO.

Nation’s Most Polluted Cities:

10 Most Ozone-Polluted Cities

1. Los Angeles-Long Beach-Riverside, Calif.

2. Bakersfield-Delano, Calif.

3. Visalia-Porterville, Calif.

4. Fresno-Madera, Calif.

5. Sacramento-Arden-Arcade-Yuba City, Calif.-Nev.

6. Hanford-Corcoran, Calif.

7. San Diego-Carlsbad-San Marcos, Calif.

8. Houston-Baytown-Huntsville, Texas

9. Merced, Calif.

10. Charlotte-Gastonia-Salisbury, N.C.-S.C.

10 Cities Most Polluted by Short-term Particle Pollution

1. Bakersfield-Delano, Calif.

2. Fresno-Madera, Calif.

3. Pittsburgh-New Castle, Pa.

4. Los Angeles-Long Beach-Riverside, Calif.

5. Salt Lake City-Ogden-Clearfield, Utah

6. Provo-Orem, Utah

7. Visalia-Porterville, Calif.

8. Birmingham-Hoover-Cullman, Ala.

9. Hanford-Corcoran, Calif.

9. Logan, Utah-Idaho

9. Sacramento-Arden-Arcade-Yuba City, Calif.-Nev.

10 Cities Most Polluted by Year-Round Particle Pollution

1. Bakersfield-Delano, Calif.

2. Los Angeles-Long Beach-Riverside, Calif.

2. Phoenix-Mesa-Glendale, Ariz.

2. Visalia-Porterville, Calif.

5. Hanford-Corcoran, Calif.

6. Fresno-Madera, Calif.

7.Pittsburgh-New Castle, Pa.

8. Birmingham-Hoover-Cullman, Ala.

9. Cincinnati-Middletown-Wilmington, Ohio-Ky.-Ind.

10.Louisville-Jefferson County-Elizabethtown-Scottsburg, Ky.-Ind.

10.Modesto, Calif.

Photo credit: arb.ca.gov/consprod/geninfo/cpsmog.htm

Will President Obama Compromise Public Health Protections?

Obama-Clean Air Act-EPA-compromisePresident Obama is considering a compromise with Republicans that would curtail Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) authority to regulate air pollutants harmful to public health.  For months Republicans and some conservative Democrats in Congress have been pushing to roll back the EPA’s ability to enforce the Clean Air Act.  Conservatives have attempted to pass anti-EPA measures by attaching them to the federal budget bill, as well as by introducing separate legislation to reduce or eliminate EPA authority. 

Now news that President Obama is considering a compromise with Republicans has health advocates worried about the fate of one of the nation’s most important environmental laws.  “The President must not sacrifice the health of our children and communities,” said Sarah Hodgdon, Conservation Director for the Sierra Club.  “He must not succumb to Big Oil and Coal and their cronies in Congress.”

Originally passed by Congress in 1970 with bipartisan support, the Clean Air Act helped clear America’s skies of the worst side effects of industrialization.  The law mandates the federal Environmental Protection Agency place limits on what levels of pollution are acceptable from a public health perspective, and requires the agency to come up with rules for preventing pollution.  According to the EPA, Clean Air Act regulations are estimated to have prevented 130,000 heart attacks, 1.7 cases of asthma, and 160,000 premature deaths last year alone.

Yet a surprising number of dangerous pollutants remain largely unregulated by the EPA.  Amendments to the Clean Air Act passed in 1990 stipulated the EPA reduce toxic emissions not originally covered under the Clean Air Act, such as mercury, lead, and arsenic from power plants.  However these rules were delayed from going into effect for two decades, and the agency is only just now moving to implement the new standards. 

The EPA is also acting for the first time ever to place limits on carbon and greenhouse gases, after a Supreme Court Ruling that emissions which contribute to global warming qualify as a threat to public health.  Almost all the new rules are being targeted by conservatives, who say regulating pollution unnecessarily hinders the oil and coal industries.  President Obama originally pledged to protect the Clean Air Act and stand up for EPA authority, but now environmental groups worry he may be caving to Republican pressure.

Last year Congress failed to pass a national climate policy to limit greenhouse gases, and meanwhile international negotiations have failed to produce a binding global climate treaty.  The existing Clean Air Act therefore remains the best tool in the United States for curbing carbon and other emissions from dirty coal plants, oil refineries, and automobile tailpipes.  By enforcing the Clean Air Act, the federal government could trigger a dramatic shift away from dirty fossil fuels and to cleaner sources of energy, even without any new action from Congress.  If President Obama bargains away that power, environmental and health groups will have lost their most promising tool for averting catastrophic climate change. 

“If the biggest polluters and their allies in Congress get their way,” said the Center for Biological Diversity in an email to supporters, “the EPA will be prevented from implementing the Clean Air Act to reduce dangerous carbon dioxide pollution that will permanently alter our climate.”

Few details have emerged about what kind of deal with Republicans the president might be considering.  However conservative proposals for reducing EPA authority include completely eliminating the EPA’s ability to regulate carbon emissions, or delaying carbon regulations for as long as two years.  Other proposals focus on preventing the EPA from adopting strong standards to limit mercury, lead, and other toxic air pollutants from power plants.

Photo credit: “keith011764” on Flickr

Clean Air Act Faces Threats

February 1, 2011- Nick Engelfried

Many leading environmental groups in the United States are gearing up for a giant fight to preserve the effectiveness of the Clean Air Act, one of the nation’s most important environmental laws.  With this year’s more conservative Congress meaning the United States is unlikely to pass national climate legislation anytime soon, the existing Clean Air Act holds potential to help reduce carbon emissions and other pollutants produced by burning fossil fuels.  The catch is industry lobbyists and their supporters in Congress are even now attempting to reduce the landmark law’s impact and weaken the agency responsible for enforcing it. 

Under the Clean Air Act, the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has authority to tighten pollution limits in order to bring the law in line with the latest findings on how air pollutants affect public health.  New standards for mercury, nitrous oxides, and other compounds could increase the cost of burning coal to polluters, prompting a shift to cleaner and increasingly cheap renewable energy sources.  This year the EPA is also using its authority to regulate carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases for the first time in an effort to counter the health impacts of climate change.

Republicans and some Democrats in Congress have threatened to introduce legislation that would delay or prevent new Clean Air Act regulations from taking effect.  Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) has already proposed delaying EPA rules on greenhouse emissions for as much as two years, effectively postponing action on climate change.  With fossil fuel companies pushing hard to get out of these and other upcoming regulations, the fight over the Clean Air Act will be long and fierce in 2011. 

Challenges to the authority of the Clean Air Act are not new.  Last year Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) introduced a resolution in the US Senate intended to prevent the EPA from curbing greenhouse gas emissions.  This legislation never made it through the Senate, and similar proposals gained even less traction in the US House of Representatives.  However things are different this year, largely because of electoral victories for Republicans last November.  Conservatives now hold a majority in the House of Representatives, and made important gains in the Senate as well.  It is therefore much more likely a proposal that limits EPA authority or curtails the Clean Air Act could move forward.

“It is tragic that in the face of rapid escalation of climate change and the occurrence of extreme weather events, not only will congress take no action to address climate pollution; they are actively working to undermine the agency with the greatest ability to make a difference,” said Elijah Zarlin of the CREDO Action Network, which campaigns for progressive causes in the US. 

Yet while environmental groups have reason to be worried, it is by no means clear conservatives can get legislation which weakens the Clean Air Act through the Senate.  Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA), chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, has criticized attempts to delay Clean Air Act rules and says she doesn’t believe such proposals could make it into law.  President Obama still has the authority to veto a law that would curtail or delay new EPA regulations, and the likelihood of Congress mustering the votes to overcome a veto is very small.  Meanwhile efforts to weaken the Clean Air Act could prove very unpopular with voters, who still tend to see the law as essential for protecting public health.   

A strong public outcry could ensure the Clean Air Act stays intact and that the EPA retains full authority to enforce it.  Groups like the Sierra Club, Rainforest Action Network, and many others are already mobilizing their members to defend new clean air rules and ensure proposals to weaken them do not move through Congress.  Though the outcome is far from certain, the clash of public health advocates with the fossil fuel industries could easily prove the most important environmental story of 2011.

Photo credit: Marcy Reiford

China’s Air Pollution “Transportation” To LA

January 20, 2011- By Robin Comita

China is home to the 16 cities with the worst air quality in the world. Linfen, China houses the world’s most polluted air due to its location in the center of a strew of coal mines. China’s coal industry and factories make the air quality particularly hazardous, even in spite of efforts to use green technology and improve air quality. In some of China’s cities, it is not uncommon to wear a surgical mask when walking outdoors. However, science has revealed potent data revealing what the Environmental Protection Agency has called the “global transport of air pollution.”

This data is of particular concern to Americans, especially those living in California. Science has yet to conclude the amount each industry in different countries contributes to the transportation of air pollution, but overwhelmingly China’s air pollution is now hovering over California. Los Angeles, California, is notorious for its low air quality and dense brown smog. The smog above LA is largely due to car emissions and geography. The San Gabriel Mountains prevent the smog from dispersing as it typically would in other US cities, and combines with cold sea air and tropical air pressure to trap the smog above LA. But these factors do not explain how Chinese air pollutants arrived in LA.

By studying the “signature” chemicals of specific pollutants from a particular region, scientists have tracked the pollutants movement across the world. Weather patterns convey the air in China to California, where much of China’s air pollutants remain trapped by the mountainous landscape. On a given day, as much as 25% of LA’s and 40% of California’s overall air pollution is imported from China.

As outsourcing has become the norm for US manufacturing companies, products sold in America increasingly bare the “made in China” or “made in India” labels. When a corporation outsources a business sector, part of the appeal is that the company has less responsibility for that branch. Headquarters do not have to provide health care and avoid paying “overhead” production costs for that sector. The findings of these studies have shown that the consequences of extensive and environmentally irresponsible manufacturing overseas returns to Americans in the form of lower air quality. 

Air quality studies have exposed potentially devastating effects to human health. Children raised in LA are more likely to develop asthma and stunted lung growth than children in other parts of America. If affected children move to an area with higher air quality before lung development is complete, many have greatly improved health. Living in places with poor air quality can reduce the quality of life for inhabitants, children and adults alike, and many times this harm is irreversible.

A leading environmental official in China gave his opinion to the New York Times in 2005, stating that China’s air pollution could quadruple within the next 15 years. As China’s population continues to increase, industry and infrastructure are likely to expand as well, which explains the steep climb in air pollution. As pollution in China increases, it follows that air pollution in the US will also increase, a threat that should concern Americans as well.

List of America’s Dirtiest (and Cleanest) Air Released

November 19, 2010
By: GreenAnswers Staff

More than 175 million Americans live in regions with unhealthy levels of air pollution, according to the American Lung Association’s 2010 State of the Air Report. That means 58 percent of Americans are putting themselves at increased risks of lung infections, asthma, cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

The Lung Association’s report analyzed levels of ozone and particular matter in the air to come up with a list of the country’s most polluted air.

For 2010, the urban areas with the worst levels of year-round particle pollution, ranked from worst to better, are:

  1. Phoenix-Mesa-Scottsdale, AZ
  2. Bakersfield, CA
  3. Los Angeles-Long Beach-Riverside, CA
  4. Visalia-Porterville, CA
  5. Pittsburgh-New Castle, PA
  6. Fresno-Madera, CA
  7. Birmingham-Hoover-Cullman, AL
  8. Hanford-Corcoran, CA
  9. Cincinnati-Middletown-Wilmington, OH-KY-IN
  10. St. Louis-St. Charles-Farmington, MO-IL
  11. Charleston, WV
  12. Detroit-Warren-Flint, MI
  13. Weirton-Steubenville, WV-OH
  14. Louisville-Jefferson County-Elizabethtown-Scottsburg, KY-IN
  15. Modesto, CA
  16. Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Gainesville, GA-AL
  17. Houston-Baytown-Huntsville, TX
  18. Huntington-Ashland, WV-KY-OH
  19. Cleveland-Akron-Elyria, OH
  20. Macon-Warner Robins-Fort Valley, GA
  21. Hagerstown-Martinsburg, MD-WV
  22. Knoxville-Sevierville-La Follette, TN
  23. Augusta-Richmond County, GA-SC
  24. Indianapolis-Anderson-Columbus, IN
  25. Parkersburg-Marietta, WV-OH
  26. York-Hanover-Gettysburg, PA

The urban areas with the worst levels of ozone pollution, ranked from worst to better, are:

  1. Los Angeles-Long Beach-Riverside, CA
  2. Bakersfield, CA
  3. Visalia-Porterville, CA
  4. Fresno-Madera, CA
  5. Sacramento–Arden-Arcade–Yuba City, CA-NV
  6. Hanford-Corcoran, CA
  7. Houston-Baytown-Huntsville, TX
  8. San Diego-Carlsbad-San Marcos, CA
  9. San Luis Obispo-Paso Robles, CA
  10. Charlotte-Gastonia-Salisbury, NC-SC
  11. Phoenix-Mesa-Scottsdale, AZ
  12. Merced, CA
  13. Dallas-Fort Worth, TX
  14. Knoxville-Sevierville-La Follette, TN
  15. El Centro, CA
  16. New York-Newark-Bridgeport, NY-NJ-CT-PA
  17. Washington-Baltimore-Northern Virginia, DC-MD-VA-WV
  18. Cincinnati-Middletown-Wilmington, OH-KY-IN
  19. Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Gainesville, GA-AL
  20. Birmingham-Hoover-Cullman, AL
  21. Las Vegas-Paradise-Pahrump, NV
  22. Modesto, CA
  23. Philadelphia-Camden-Vineland, PA-NJ-DE-MD
  24. Chico, CA
  25. Baton Rouge-Pierre Part, LA

On a positive note, the American cities with the least amount of particle pollution are:

  1. Cheyenne, WY
  2. Santa Fe-Espanola, NM
  3. Honolulu, HI
  4. Anchorage, AK
  5. Great Falls, MT
  6. Tucson, AZ
  7. Amarillo, TX
  8. Albuquerque, NM
  9. Flagstaff, AZ
  10. Bismarck, ND
  11. Salinas, CA
  12. Fort Collins-Loveland, CO
  13. Duluth, MN-WI
  14. Pueblo, CO
  15. Cape Coral-Fort Myers, FL
  16. Palm Bay-Melbourne-Titusville, FL
  17. Sarasota-Bradenton-Punta Gorda, FL
  18. Billings, MT
  19. Fargo-Wahpeton, ND-MN
  20. Port St. Lucie-Sebastian-Vero Beach, FL
  21. Lincoln, NE
  22. San Luis Obispo-Paso Robles, CA
  23. Bangor, ME
  24. Burlington-South Burlington, VT
  25. Midland-Odessa, TX

And the American cities with the least amount of ozone pollution are:

  1. Bismarck, ND
  2. Brownsville-Harlingen-Raymondville, TX
  3. Coeur d’Alene, ID
  4. Duluth, MN-WI
  5. Fargo-Wahpeton, ND-MN
  6. Fayetteville-Springdale-Rogers, AR-MO
  7. Honolulu, HI
  8. Laredo, TX
  9. Lincoln, NE
  10. Port St. Lucie-Sebastian-Vero Beach, FL
  11. Rochester, MN
  12. Sioux Falls, SD

View the entire 2010 State of the Air Report here.

EPA to Finalize Ozone Pollution Rules this Fall

By: Nick Engelfried 

August 24, 2010
The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says this fall it will finalize new rules regulating ozone, the main component of smog pollution.  After releasing draft ozone standards in January, the EPA originally planned to release the final rules this month – in August of 2010.  Now the agency says the rule making process has been delayed a few months but that it hopes to have the new ozone rules completed by late October of this year.
In nature, ozone in the Earth’s upper atmosphere forms a protective shield against ultraviolet radiation from the sun – the now-famous “ozone layer.”  However at ground level ozone is considered a harmful pollutant, commonly referred to as “smog.”  Ground level ozone is the result of a chemical reaction between nitrous oxides from pollution sources like cars and coal plants, and volatile organic compounds produced by a wide range of human activities.  Though the visual impacts of smog are most readily apparent, ozone also contributes to health problems like asthma, lung cancer, heart attacks, and other heart and breathing-related conditions.  Exposure to high levels of ozone pollution over time can result in serious illness or death.
Federal regulations on ozone pollution, which the EPA is required to implement under the Clean Air Act, have been meant to determine what’s considered an unsafe level of ozone in the lower atmosphere, and limit emissions of pollutants like nitrous oxides that cause ozone smog.  In the late years of the George W. Bush administration, the EPA proposed rules on ozone pollution which health and environmental groups argue were insufficient to protect public health.  A compilation of 1,700 studies by scientists recommended stronger limits be placed on ozone to protect the public from unsafe levels of pollution.
Then came January of 2010 when the EPA, under the leadership Barack Obama-appointed administrator Lisa P. Jackson, announced it would re-examine the issue of ozone pollution.  The EPA released a draft of new rules which environmental groups welcomed as a crackdown on ozone and the many health problems that go with it.  Unsurprisingly, the oil and coal industries have opposed the stronger rules and attempted to get lawmakers on their side.  In May of this year, seven US senators sent a letter to the EPA asking the agency not to strengthen the Bush-era ozone rules, citing concerns that pollution regulations would be economically harmful. 
Yet a new analysis by national energy experts concludes polluters like the electric industry could meet new requirements to reduce ozone and other types of pollution without great hardship.  The report is co-authored by Susan Tierney, who has worked for both the Clinton and Obama administrations on energy issues, and is generally considered an expert in the field.  According to the report, new pollution rules are likely to mean the retirement of some of the nation’s oldest and dirtiest coal plants, and replacement of these plants with cleaner sources of electricity generation.
Now both industry and health and environmental groups are waiting to see what final rules on ozone the EPA unveils this fall.  The strength of the eventual regulations will influence public health in dozens of major cities suffering from high levels of smog, and will help determine air quality all over the country.
Photo credit: Marcy Reiford