The Supreme Court’s decision on Monday to throw out the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) rules limiting dangerous pollutants from power plants was a big win for the energy industry – and a big loss for just about everybody else, especially anyone living near one of the nation’s 600 power plants.
Power plants are the No. 1 source of the toxic mercury pollution that can be found in waterways and the bodies of fish and other wildlife in all 50 states. Mercury and other power plant pollutants are known to cause birth defects, developmental problems in children and respiratory illnesses like asthma, but the coal and utility industries have fought to block the EPA’s efforts to reduce these dangerous emissions at every turn.
A decade after determining that reducing toxic air pollution from power plants was both “appropriate and necessary” under the Clean Air Act, the EPA issued final rules in 2011 and spent the next three years fending off attacks from the industry and its conservative allies in Congress, who were determined to block the Obama administration’s environment and climate agenda. The rules finally went into effect in April, just two months before the high court nixed them in a 5-4 ruling.
The EPA rules would have required utility companies to either update aging and notoriously dirty power plants with pollution reduction technology or shut them down. The EPA estimates that air quality improvements for public health would be worth $37 to $90 billion a year, and wide-reaching impacts would be felt most in the disproportionately low-income neighborhoods and communities of color located near power facilities.
In his opinion for the majority, Justice Antonin Scalia agreed with the pro-industry plaintiffs that the EPA failed to account for the cost that such upgrades would have on the industry, an estimated $9.6 billion annually. He pointed out that the EPA’s cost-benefit analysis included pollutants such as sulfur dioxide and particulate matter that are removed from smokestacks retrofitted with standard pollution controls but are not included in the EPA rules for mercury and other toxics.
Regardless of which pollutants are covered under the program, forcing utility companies to spend a little extra on removing them from the pollution stream would have translated into huge public health benefits and could have saved thousands of lives. Here’s a rundown of how many cases of adverse health effects the EPA estimates the rules would have prevented each year:
premature death: 4,200-11,000 cases
chronic bronchitis: 2,800 cases
heart attacks: 4,700 cases
asthma attacks: 130,000 cases
hospital and emergency room visits: 5,700 visits
restricted activity days: 3,200,000 days
In addition, the EPA estimates that the rules would have prevented 540,000 sick days among workers annually.
Some utility companies had already begun installing pollution control technologies on their dirtiest plants or simply shutting them down in anticipation of the rules, but without any federal limits on toxics, the industry at large can continue spewing as much toxic pollution into the air as it wants.
Environmentalists are confident that the EPA will go back to the drawing board and issue a new set of regulations, but those would certainly face another round of challenges from the industry and its political allies.