"yes you can" signListen up, polluters.Photo: sara b.Yesterday, EPA released plans for its long-awaited “utility MACT” rule, which would regulate toxic air pollutants like mercury. I want to address one contested point in particular — the availability of technology to reduce mercury emissions — but first some scene setting.

The benefits of making Americans healthier

From a health perspective, the utility MACT is an open-and-shut case. Mercury and other toxics are clearly tied to asthma, bronchitis, and cognitive damage to infants and fetuses. EPA estimates that reducing them would save 17,000 lives every year by 2015, to say nothing of preventing thousands of illnesses, emergency room visits, and missed work days. Preventing those human casualties will save millions in health-care costs and prevent millions more in economic losses from illness and absenteeism. It will also create thousands of jobs in pollution-control industries.

The owners of these polluting plants don’t want to talk about the extraordinary benefits to the public and the economy of reducing poisonous air pollution. They want to go on being allowed to sicken and kill people (mostly poor people) at no cost. That’s not surprising. They’ve got a pretty sweet deal going!

Breaking: industries facing additional costs don’t like them

What is surprising — what continually surprises me, even as cynical as I’ve gotten — is how seriously polluters are taken in each successive episode of air pollution regulation. By now the script is numbingly predictable: industry commissions rigged studies showing that compliance will threaten power reliability and jack up costs; independent reports show otherwise; politicians from coal states uncritically echo the industry perspective; the media he-said she-saids; and finally, years later, the regs turn out to be cheaper and easier to comply with than anyone guessed. Every. Damn. Time.

So far, the benefit-to-cost ratio of the Clean Air Act is around 26 to one. But American politicians won’t take success for an answer. We’re right back in the thick of the cycle. Yesterday morning, timed for the rule’s release, came a study from the industry trade group Electric Reliability Coordinating Council called “EPA’s Utility MACT Proposal: High Risk to the Economy, No Incremental Benefit.” (I haven’t seen it online — ping me if you’ve got a link.) The title pretty much gives you the flavor.

The technology to make Americans healthier is available

The ERCC report claims that compliance will cost up to $100 billion, roughly ten times what other studies, including EPA’s, have estimated. This is based on, among other things, the contention that technology for reducing mercury emissions is hard to come by. The hyper-conservative U.S. Chamber of Commerce says, “the technology necessary to universally achieve MACT reductions does not exist in a widespread and commercially viable form.”

Well now. The Institute of Clean Air Companies (ICAC), a trade group for companies that make mercury-control tech, reports that as of 2010 [PDF], the tech has been installed on 38 coal-fired power plants and ordered by 106 more, together accounting for 55,000 megawatts. Obviously “widespread and commercially viable” is open to interpretation, but 144 plants sounds fairly well along to me.

Guess who else says cost-effective mercury-control tech exists? Arch Coal, the second largest U.S. coal producer. It is a major shareholder in ADA-ES, a company which makes pollution-control equipment for mercury. In a 2010 press release, Arch Coal boasts that ADA-ES has “developed a cost-effective brominated activated carbon technology that provides a means of achieving 90 percent removal of mercury emissions from [Powder River Basin] coals.” Cost-effective, 90 percent reductions. Sounds about right.

That’s just one company’s claims. Luckily, in 2009, the nonpartisan U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) conducted a thorough review of available mercury-control technologies. Here’s what it found (my emphasis):

Commercial deployments and 50 DOE and industry tests of sorbent injection systems have achieved, on average, 90 percent reductions in mercury emissions. … The costs of purchasing and installing sorbent injection systems and monitoring equipment have averaged about $3.6 million for the 14 coal-fired boilers operating sorbent systems alone to meet state requirements. This cost is a fraction of the cost of other pollution control devices.

So, 90 percent reductions at low cost. Check.

Unlike conservatives in Congress, many state governments have gotten the memo. The National Association of Clean Air Agencies (NACCA) notes that over a dozen states have implemented mercury rules, most of them requiring 90 percent reductions. (Here’s a Word doc listing them.) Utilities in those states must be using something to reduce emissions, no?

No one ever regrets better health

This is the same song and dance from the same owners of the same old, filthy coal plants. They don’t want to pay for the health costs they impose, so they scaremonger about lost jobs and higher bills and blackouts. They try to convince us that Americans have to accept being poisoned in exchange for a robust economy. We don’t. That’s been wrong every time so far and it’s wrong this time too.

There’s every reason to believe that benefits will be greater even than EPA estimates, as Conrad Schneider of the Clean Air Task Force explains:

The EPA simply does not quantify all of the economic benefits of the rule; it measures only the benefits of reducing particulate matter. So, the economic benefits of reducing emissions of carcinogens, or heavy metals and respiratory irritants do not show up in the analysis. Nor do the benefits to the ecosystem. That doesn’t mean these benefits are worthless. Far from it. It just means that EPA’s typical benefits analysis is woefully incomplete compared with the actual benefits the American people will experience as a result of a robust rule.

In 10 years, the costs of reducing mercury will appear modest relative to the huge gains in health, productivity, social justice, and ecological integrity. When our kids hold us accountable, they won’t ask why we paid a few extra pennies for electricity. They’ll ask us why we let all those people get sick and die for all those years before getting around to it.

If you want to know more, there’s tons of background material available on the new rule: