Dec. 21, 2011 by Catherine O'Neill

The Utility MACT: Finally Telling Coal Plants They Can't Spew All the Mercury They Want

It was October 1990, George H.W. Bush was President, and the vote wasn’t close in either chamber: Congress overwhelmingly passed the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments, including provisions requiring EPA to reduce mercury emissions from major sources such as power plants.

Today the EPA at long last released its rule regulating mercury emissions from coal-fired utilities.  The fact that the largest remaining sources of mercury will finally be required to reduce their emissions is an important and historic development. And EPA’s steadfastness in the face of kicking and screaming by the dirtiest of the utilities down to the bitter end is a cause for celebration.  But thousands were needlessly poisoned during years of delay, and today is less an occasion for a victory lap than one for sober reflection.

How is it that one industry has wrangled nearly a quarter-century delay from the time Congress mandated “serious” reductions in toxic pollutants to the time it will actually be required to spew less mercury into our air? 

How have coal-fired utilities secured this reprieve despite the proliferation of advisories warning children and women of childbearing age to curtail – or cease entirely – their consumption of certain species of fish …

Oct. 28, 2011 by Catherine O'Neill

As EPA’s long-awaited rule curbing mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants heads to OMB for its review, new scientific studies suggest that the harms of mercury contamination may be more severe and more widespread than previously understood. According to the report Great Lakes Mercury Connections: The Extent and Effects of Mercury Pollution in the Great Lakes Region, released October 11, “the scope and intensity of the problem is greater than had been previously recognized.”  Despite these harms, utilities have been relentless in their efforts to derail mercury regulation.   (The most recent attempts of this industry and its allies in 25 states to prop up the recalcitrant “old dirties” that still hope to avoid reducing their mercury emissions is discussed by my colleague Rena Steinzor.) These ongoing efforts to undermine protection of human and ecological health are unconscionable. The release of this recent collection of scientific data …

Oct. 5, 2011 by Catherine O'Neill

At a growing number of contaminated sites across the nation, “cleanup” means that toxic contaminants are left in place while environmental agencies look to institutional controls (ICs) to limit human contact with these contaminants. Agencies hope that ICs such as deed restrictions or advisory signs will inform people about the continued presence of contaminants at a site and help them steer clear, thus avoiding exposure. Yet agencies have done little to ascertain whether these hopes are well-founded, particularly over the long term. Against this backdrop, EPA released guidance last month that for the first time seeks to systematize its evaluation of ICs. The guidance directs EPA investigators conducting five-year reviews to determine whether ICs called for as part of site cleanups have actually been implemented and maintained. This guidance is a welcome first step. But larger questions remain about agencies’ increased reliance on ICs and other forms …

June 24, 2011 by Catherine O'Neill

The EPA has developed an inexplicable penchant for making decisions that please no one. So, it should come as no surprise that its announcement today regarding the ongoing, will-they-won’t-they Boiler MACT saga falls into this category too. The agency traded in the indefinite delay it gave itself last month to “reconsider” the final Boiler MACT standards it issued in February for a firm deadline:  The EPA now promises to complete the reconsidered final standard by the end of April of 2012.

Environmentalists responded to the EPA’s earlier announcement that it would indefinitely delay the reconsidered final standard with equal parts anger and shock. (See here and here) To allow this indefinite delay, the agency exploited a loophole in the Administrative Procedure Act, crafting a one-sided “justice” analysis that considered only industry’s interests while completely ignoring those of the public and the environment.

It’s …

March 11, 2011 by Catherine O'Neill

By Wednesday of next week, EPA is due to publish its long-anticipated rule controlling mercury emissions from coal-fired utilities.  This is how we ought to judge the rule: does it follow the mandate of the Clean Air Act (CAA)? For too long, utilities have managed by various means to fend off regulation required by the CAA. Assuming EPA’s rule at long last complies with Congress’s directives, Americans may look forward to a day when they can again eat fish without serving their families a side of methylmercury. 

The mercury that coal-fired utilities emit is highly toxic to humans. Exposure to even small amounts of methylmercury can lead to irreversible neurological damage. Methylmercury's neurodevelopmental effects place the developing fetus, children, and adults up to age 20 at particular risk. The most recent data also suggest adverse effects on the cardiovascular systems of adults. Mercury emitted …

Feb. 24, 2011 by Catherine O'Neill

This post was written by CPR Member Scholar Catherine O'Neill and Communications Specialist Ben Somberg.

The announcement from EPA Wednesday creating final standards for pollution from industrial boilers is being described by the press as “scaled back,” and “half the cost of an earlier proposal.” Those things are true, but the new regulation is no small matter. It will have a significant and positive effect on the health of people across the country and beyond.

Says the Sierra Club: "Though the announcement today is modest by comparison to the proposals put forth by the EPA last June, we urge Administrator Lisa Jackson to forge ahead to protect our children and families’ health." NRDC says: "EPA could have done more, but these standards accomplish long overdue, needed cuts in mercury, benzene, heavy metal and acid gas pollution from industrial plants. While the final biomass standards are notably …

Nov. 3, 2010 by Catherine O'Neill

Economics professors at two major universities just issued their reviews of industry-funded assessments of the costs of EPA’s proposed boiler rule (via NRDC). The professors’ conclusions: “the methodology is fundamentally flawed;” “the resulting estimates of job losses are completely invalid;” “the results reported are useless;” “if I were grading this, I would give it an F.” These strongly-worded indictments should make us sit up and take note. 

Professors Charles Kolstad and Jason Shogren were asked to review industry-funded estimates of the costs of EPA’s proposed boiler MACT rule. These estimates have been cited in support of recent industry claims that it would be too costly and result in a large loss of jobs. The professors’ reviews usefully reveal the serious flaws in the “evidence” around which industry has been spinning its anti-regulatory story. In an earlier post, I examined another aspect of the industry story …

Oct. 12, 2010 by Catherine O'Neill

EPA’s proposal to curb emissions from the second largest source of mercury in the United States – industrial boilers and process heaters – has come under fire in recent weeks.  Those industries that would be subject to the “boiler rule” have objected to its costs, and some senators have embraced their claims (see also Lisa Jackson's response). The industry story, however, leaves out important facts.

The industry story does not mention that, on balance, the estimated costs of the rule are dwarfed by the benefits it would deliver in terms of human health. According to the Regulatory Impact Analysis (RIA) for the rule, regulating boilers would result in societal benefits ranging from $18 billion to $45 billion, at a cost of $3.4 billion. Thus, the rule is estimated to deliver net benefits in the neighborhood of $15 billion to $41 billion. To put it another way …

Sept. 1, 2010 by Catherine O'Neill

According to the egg industry, the thousands of people sickened by eggs contaminated with Salmonella enteritidis have only themselves to blame. As USA Today reported:

"Consumers that were sickened reportedly all ate eggs that were not properly or thoroughly cooked. Eggs need to be cooked so that the whites and yolks are firm (not runny) which should kill any bacteria," says Mitch Head, spokesperson for the United Egg Producers.

"Some people may not think of an egg as you would ground beef, but they need to start," says Krista Eberle of the United Egg Producers' Egg Safety Center. "It may sound harsh and I don't mean it to sound that way. But all the responsibility cannot be placed on the farmer. Somewhere along the line consumers have to be responsible for what they put in their bodies."

With more than 500 million eggs to date subject …

July 27, 2010 by Catherine O'Neill

The EPA released a guidance document on Monday that promises to integrate environmental justice considerations into the fabric of its rulemaking efforts. Titled the Interim Guidance on Considering Environmental Justice During the Development of an Action, EPA’s Guidance sets forth concrete steps meant to flag those instances in which its rules or similar actions raise environmental justice concerns. Specifically, the Guidance directs agency staff involved in rulemaking to “meaningfully engage with and consider the impacts on” communities of color, low-income communities, indigenous populations, and tribes.

EPA’s Guidance responds to an issue raised by CPR Member Scholars at the dawn of the Obama Administration. In our 2008 report, Protecting Public Health and the Environment by the Stroke of a Presidential Pen, we observed that efforts to address environmental injustice had languished in the 15 years since President Clinton issued the Environmental Justice Executive Order (Executive Order …

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