This was written by Felice Stadler:
For those of us who have advocated for clean air and a clean environment for many years, we often find milestones measure success over decades. When it comes to curbing mercury pollution, which I devoted 8 years advocating for from 1998-2006, we have had many successes that we can take great pride in achieving. But it has been a long, hard-fought battle, and one that continues today with the U.S. Supreme Court hearing oral arguments on the U.S. EPA’s Mercury and Air Toxics Standards that apply to the U.S. fleet of coal- and oil-fired power plants.
The process for setting protective mercury standards began in 1990 when Congress amended the Clean Air Act and determined that power plants – while being the largest industrial source of air toxics — required additional study before EPA could move forward with standards (compromise language inserted in the statute to appease some members of the coal lobby). Congress also agreed that the documented, widespread mercury pollution required a comprehensive federal response but needed further study before determining the appropriate course of action.
The Mercury Study Report to Congress was released by EPA in 1997, and more studies followed that captured national attention — new evidence that mercury poisoning affecting the reproductive success of fish-eating birds like the Common Loon — and cutting edge health research by the late Dr. Kate Mahaffey, on the risk of mercury exposure to children exposed in-utero. Clean air advocates joined forces with public health and wildlife advocates. We were alarmed by what the experts were telling us, and believed that a problem of this magnitude required and demanded a swift national response.
Efforts to protect those most vulnerable began to gain traction at EPA and in many states, and public demand for taking mercury out of the environment was unwavering. Consumer-focused companies responded by removing mercury from their products where it was, in many cases, a needless and dangerous additive (Remember light-up sneakers and cereal toys that had mercury in them?). Many sectors that were major sources of mercury emissions, like hospital waste and municipal incinerators, have reduced mercury emissions dramatically in the past decades. And most of the power sector has reduced their mercury emissions, too, using cost-effective, made-in-America technology, driven by the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards and state standards. It is just a minority of remaining dirty power plants and other polluter interests that are aligned against these long overdue, cost-effective standards. In the battle to address man-made mercury pollution in our environment, they appear to be the last man standing.
Despite weathering many difficult hurdles, EPA successfully finalized a rule limiting mercury and other air toxics from coal- and oil-fired power plants in 2011, 11 years after the process began. Citizens delivered 800,000 comments to EPA in support of the standards. Now, four years later, we find ourselves facing some of the same opponents that organized against federal mercury controls over 15 years ago. But the landscape is very different: States have stepped up to the challenge and most of the power sector now has mercury controls installed to meet the standards. Companies are demonstrating that the health-protective standards are doable, delivering widespread health and environmental benefits.
I told my son today that the rule I worked on when he was born 14 years ago is being reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court. He asked me, in that teenage sort of way, “And that is something you’re proud of?” No, sadly, this is a milestone I wish I wasn’t observing.
Let’s hope the U.S. Supreme Court upholds the tremendous effort EPA has put toward developing protective and achievable mercury toxics standards. We can’t afford to undo important health protections that our children deserve.
To the toxic pollution lobby I say: It’s time we move on.
Felice Stadler, mother of two children living in Kensington, MD, has been advocating for clean air for 25 years. She is campaign director at Environmental Defense Fund. @FeliceStadler