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May 13, 2014

Big Victory for Public Health

Mill-Creek-KY-coal-plantMill Creek coal plant in Louisville, Kentucky. Photo by John Blair.

When the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit upheld limits last month on dangerous emissions of mercury and toxic air pollution from power plants, it was a big victory for clean air, clean water, and the health of our families. The court decision keeps in place the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's 2012 Mercury and Air Toxics (MATS) standard, which is on track to eliminate as much as 90 percent of the mercury and air toxics currently released into our air by coal-fired power plants.

As the mom of a young daughter, I know that mercury pollution is of special concern to families, because babies exposed to high levels of mercury in the womb are at higher risk of lifelong developmental problems including lowered IQ, learning disabilities, and delays in walking and talking. Mercury exposure is so widespread that, according to EPA studies, at least 1.4 million American women of childbearing age have enough mercury in their bodies to put a fetus at developmental risk.

Coal-fired power plants are the largest source of these toxic air pollutants and account for almost half of the nation's mercury emissions. Back in 1990, Congress updated the Clean Air Act and directed the EPA to set limits by 2002 for mercury, arsenic, lead, and the many other hazardous air pollutants that power plants emit. But big polluters stood in the way, so health and environmental advocates had to fight to put the standards in place. After a decade of delay, the agency finalized the Mercury and Air Toxics rule in 2012. A group of polluting corporations and a handful of states immediately filed a lawsuit challenging the rule, and in April they lost that challenge -- a big win for our health and our environment.

Along with mercury and arsenic, power plants discharge numerous other toxins and acidic gases into the air that threaten public health and child development. Exposure to even low levels of these powerful air pollutants are linked to cancer, heart disease, neurological damage, birth defects, asthma attacks and even premature death.

When the EPA proposed these life-saving mercury protections, Americans demonstrated their overwhelming support, turning out to public hearings and submitting more than 800,000 comments supporting the MATS rule. I was part of that long push to finalize the standards, and I know how many people poured their time, energy, and passion into winning these mercury safeguards. By upholding these protections, the court has cleared the way for this nation to keep making progress in protecting the health of our kids, and powering our nation with clean, safe energy.

-- Mary Anne Hitt, Director of the Sierra Club Beyond Coal Campaign



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