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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Obama's Second Chance On Air Toxics Rule

Air Date: Week of September 9, 2011

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President Obama’s recent decision to go against EPA recommendations for ozone standards shocked environmentalists. Soon the president will have another opportunity to make a decision on another EPA clean air regulation. Lynn Goldman is Dean of George Washington University School of Public Health and former EPA administrator for toxic substances. She tells host Bruce Gellerman that the proposed rules would reduce mercury and other heavy metal emissions from coal-fired power plants, and could have major health effects.

Transcript

GELLERMAN: Environmentalists were shocked and disappointed when President Obama recently delayed implementation of rules that would have regulated ozone emissions from cars, factories, and power plants. Now environmentalists are eager to learn what the President will do with another EPA clean air proposal.

That one would reduce emissions of mercury and other heavy metals from power plants. Ninety-nine percent of neuro-toxic mercury comes from coal-fired power plants. The proposed rules have been in the works for more than 20 years but, still, there are no federal standards for these pollutants. Lynn Goldman is Dean of George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services and a former administrator for Toxic Substances at EPA.


Warnings about dangerous level of mercury in fish are common in many lakes and streams. (Photo: Joey Rozier)

GOLDMAN: It’s taken a long time, and yet during that time, we’ve continued to see from these power plants emissions of very harmful substances - mercury, even arsenic and lead. And so, what this rule will do, once it’s finalized, is that it will require these power plants to install technologies that reduce the pollution from these toxic substances.

GELLERMAN: How does mercury get into the environment? So you’ve got this coal, you burn it, it goes up the smoke stack, and then what happens?

GOLDMAN: Ok, so then the mercury is in the air, and eventually what’s going to happen is that it will be deposited. And when it is deposited, particularly in water, it is converted from a metallic form of the mercury to an organic form called methylmercury. It’s converted that way by microorganisms in the environment. That methylmercury then winds up in the food chain.

GELLERMAN: And mercury bioaccumulates, right? So, a big fish gets eaten by a bigger fish, and so on. And, if we eat that biggest fish, we get the total accumulation of mercury.

GOLDMAN: Yeah, and since we’re like the biggest fish, and we like eating the big fish - we like eating fish, you know, that particularly have high levels of mercury like shark and swordfish and mackerel, which we really need to avoid - especially pregnant women shouldn’t eat those fish at all.

The most serious effect of mercury is the effect on the developing brain of the fetus and infant. And we know that if mothers are exposed to mercury during pregnancy, that there is a good likelihood that there will be an impact on development of the child, and particularly intellectual development, such as verbal abilities.

GELLERMAN: So, if the EPA proposals are adopted, what are the likely outcomes in terms of public health?

GOLDMAN: Well, what EPA has estimated is that, as early as 2016, every year we would have 17,000 fewer deaths, 4,500 fewer cases of bronchitis, around 120,000 fewer cases of asthma, and something like 850,000 fewer days of missed work, mostly due to respiratory problems.

GELLERMAN: You know, House Majority Leader, Eric Cantor, put repeal of air quality regulations as one of the top ten job destroying regulations, and he’s targeting it this fall for re-appeal.

GOLDMAN: You know that the air quality regulations in this country have been estimated to save the economy literally billions of dollars. Billions of dollars. And, if you want to increase the deficit, what you want to do is get rid of air pollution regulations.

If you think about it, can we actually afford the additional deaths, the additional cases of bronchitis and asthma? The fact that the medical care costs that are associated with this kind of pollution are enormous, and are a burden to our society? Can we afford all those days of missed work- what is the impact on families from those days of missed work? So, the whole picture needs to be considered when talking about the effects on the economy.


Lynn Goldman is the Dean of George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services. (Courtesy of Lynn Goldman)

GELLERMAN: The EPA got something like 800,000 comments in support of this mercury regulation, but the opposition is vociferous. And, I guess the president is under tremendous pressure not to allow these regulations to go into effect.

GOLDMAN: Well, in this particular case, I don’t think that there is a lot of choice. I mean the EPA was actually taken to court by the American Nurses Association to ask that the EPA be required to make this standard, and this regulation must be done under consent decree. And so, I don’t think that there are very many options, other than moving forward as they’ve committed to do.

GELLERMAN: So, the EPA is required to come up with the rule and adopt the rule, but could the president just say ‘Uh, we can’t afford it at this point?’

GOLDMAN: No, I don’t think that that’s an option under the law for the president to do that. And, I don’t think that the president would want to do that. When you think about the impacts on children’s health, on the health of families, this is a very important thing to move forward.

GELLERMAN: But President Obama just recently kind of backed off of the ozone standard that the EPA had proposed. Do you not see him doing that - just backing off? Just delaying?

GOLDMAN: This is under a different provision of the law. And, the situation is very different. But still, it’s a signal that we’re all watching very carefully - for sure.

GELLERMAN: Lynn Goldman is Dean of George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services. She’s also former administrator for Toxic Substances at the EPA. Dr. Goldman, thank you so very much.

GOLDMAN: Thank you. Bye.

 

Links

Lynn Goldman’s Home Page

The EPA on Mercury and Air Toxics

 

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