Will New EPA Regulations Benefit Palo Alto? I Hope So

Obama is Scheduled To Approve Tighter Air Pollution Regulations and Boy Do We Need Them In Our Fair City

Breathing has been on my mind lately. It may have been the yoga class I took the other day. “Focus on breath,” said the instructor. And so I did.

Or perhaps it was because of a recent phone call with my mother. She spent the entire time coughing, struggling to catch her breath as a result of a terrible bout with bronchitis. “Breathing is so hard,” she said.

Or perhaps it was because my teenage daughter was diagnosed with exercise-induced asthma. No one in my family or my husband’s family has this disease, but our daughter does. She plays year-round club soccer and runs track; she’s outdoors, breathing hard, almost every day. Now, not only are her muscles straining, so are her lungs.

So, like any good mother, I started doing some research. Here are a few things I’ve learned recently...

  • American coal plants produce 386,000 tons of hazardous air pollutants every year.
  • These pollutants infect our children through the air and the food supply (That mercury in tuna? Well, now you know where it comes from).
  • The pollutants emitted by coal plants have been linked to birth defects, immune disorders, cancer, and ...asthma.
  • Average air quality in Palo Alto ranks 12 on a scale of 1 to 100 (100 being the highest). The average city across the US comes in at 82. Not doing so well, are we? 

Which is why I am now holding my breath. 

This week, the Obama Administration is scheduled to approve a set of rulings issued last spring by the EPA that would update the Clean Air Act.  If implemented, the rulings will dramatically cut mercury, heavy metals, acid gas, and other emissions from power plants, specifically coal-burning plants.

The Mercury and Air Toxics Standards would require coal-fired plants to install emission filters on their smoke stacks, providing for a significant reduction in pollution. Unfortunately, these efforts to protect our air have become a hot potato in the game of politics.

Toxic emissions were restricted by the Clean Air Act signed into law in 1970 by President Richard Nixon. In 1990, President George Bush signed an amendment providing for tighter regulations. However, it wasn’t until 2000, under President Clinton, that coal-fired plants were included in the Clean Air Act.

Now the act is being dismantled, one tarnished piece of coal at a time. Select members of the energy industry such as American Electric Power, the country’s largest coal-burning electric utility, and their political friends, such as Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, argue restrictions on coal-powered plants will force undue burden and cost - something they insist no one wants to do in a limping economy. 

In the past year, they have worked to limit EPA influence by attempting to significantly cut its budget and by aggressively lobbying against the new standards. These rulings, they claim, will result in rolling black outs, a loss of jobs, and could potentially even lead to bankruptcy. They argue the industry needs more time. 

Of course, they have had since 2000 to limit pollution from their plants. Some forward thinking companies have already taken the initiative to reign in their impact on the environment. Constellation Energy installed controls for mercury and other pollutants on its big power plant outside Baltimore, according to senior vice president, Paul Allen, as reported on NPR. The retrofitting took a little more than two years and at the peak of construction, it put 1,300 people to work. 

The EPA has indicated the annual industry costs of implementing the new standards will run nearly $11 billion; nothing to sneeze at. However, when weighed against the benefits to our children it is hard to argue with the inherent value of these proposals.

A 2008 study reported in the journal Health Affairs indicated we spend $76.6 billion annually on environmentally related illness in children. These illnesses range from lead poisoning, to mercury exposure, and even to asthma add great burden to families and our extended community. Trust me, I know.

My hope is that our president will not bow to the winds of politics as he has done recently on other environmental issues. He’s promised to support the EPA rulings, but until I hear the announcement, I won’t be able to let out a sigh of relief.

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