The Environmental Protection Agency is currently working to establish common-sense standards for pollution such as smog, particulate matter, carbon dioxide, mercury, and arsenic. The agency is gathering public comment on its Mercury and Air Toxics Rule, greenhouse gas standards are nearly finalized, and an ozone and smog rule is under development. These measures will protect public health, save millions of dollars on health care costs, improve workplace safety and productivity, and create much needed jobs.
Mercury pollution from coal-fired power plants contributes to the contamination of our fisheries and puts Montanans at risk, especially women and children. And although Montana is one of 19 states that have a standard for mercury emissions, mercury pollution does not respect state boundaries, which is why it is so important that the EPA regulate coal-fired power plants throughout the United States, because many states have not developed their own mechanisms for reduction. According to the EPA, coal-burning power plants contribute more than 50 percent of all domestic human-caused mercury emissions in the U.S., making them the largest source of such mercury pollution in the country.
Montana is certainly no stranger to mercury-contaminated waterways, as evidenced by the 49 waterbodies that have been determined by the Montana Department of Environmental Quality to be “impaired and threatened and in need of water quality restoration” due to mercury contamination. These waterbodies are located in 20 different counties, and comprise 418,837 lake acres and 1,235 river miles. The Montana Departments of Public Health & Human Services and Fish, Wildlife & Parks have issued fish consumption advisories for all the state’s affected waters including several statewide advisories – meaning they apply to all rivers and lakes in Montana.
We have gotten to a point where families can no longer go out fishing with their children and come home and eat their catch safely.
EPA studies show that the mercury contamination problem in the U.S. is so widespread that as many as one in six women of childbearing age are likely to have mercury levels in her blood high enough to put her baby at risk.
Fortunately, the mercury and air toxics rule would require many power plants to install widely available, proven pollution control technologies to cut harmful emissions of mercury, arsenic, acid gases, and other toxic pollutants.
Furthermore, we know that carbon dioxide pollution increases global average temperatures, which worsens ozone smog. Scientific research shows that ozone smog exacerbates asthma attacks and other respiratory diseases. Currently in Montana 20,000 children and more than 71,000 adults are suffering from asthma. The estimated incremental direct cost of asthma and its related illnesses in Montana is over $185 million every year.
EPA and health professionals including the American Medical Association and American Lung Association have stated that greenhouse gas pollutants have and will increasingly contribute to serious health problems, which put the elderly and small children at greatest risk. The connections between carbon pollution, climate change, air quality, and health have never been more important, or more apparent.
In addition to the significant health benefits derived from reducing pollution, these pollution reduction measures will create jobs. The Clean Air Act has stimulated American innovation for 40 years, making us a leader in the multi-billion-dollar environmental technology sector. According to the EPA, the proposed mercury and air toxics rule alone is projected to create 31,000 short-term and 9,000 long-term jobs for ironworkers, pipefitters, electricians, and boilermakers.
We can no longer afford to dismiss public health and a healthy economy simply to maintain the status quo for polluting industries. Unsafe levels of ozone, particulate, carbon dioxide, mercury, arsenic and other pollutants that threaten our quality of life in Montana can and should be reduced; therefore, we must take the action needed to reduce pollution, clean our air and protect our waters. One important step is to support the EPA’s efforts to do so. The agency is in the midst of a 60-day public comment period on its mercury and air toxics rule. Here’s how to learn more and comment.
Bob Clark is an Organizing Representative for the Sierra Club in Missoula.