Cross-posted from the Wonk Room.
At a congressional hearing on Friday designed to lay the groundwork for an effort to delay critical EPA toxic pollution standards, Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) claimed that reducing emissions of toxic mercury, sulfur dioxide, and soot would not bring health benefits. Though conceding he is “not a medical doctor,” Barton offered the “hypothesis” that EPA estimates of the benefits of its proposed air toxics rule are “pulled out of the thin air” because there is no “medical negative” to the pollution:
To actually cause poisoning or a premature death you have to get a large concentration of mercury into the body. I’m not a medical doctor, but my hypothesis is that’s not going to happen! You’re not going to get enough mercury exposure or SO2 exposure or even particulate matter exposure! I think the EPA numbers are pulled out of the thin air!
The new power plant toxics rule will put over 30,000 people to work upgrading plants to dramatically reduce toxic mercury and other chemicals that cause neurological damage to fetuses and babies. Those upgrades will also cut enough particulate pollution to prevent as many as 17,000 premature deaths, 11,000 heart attacks, 120,000 cases of childhood asthma symptoms, 11,000 cases of acute bronchitis among children, 12,000 emergency room visits and hospital admissions, and 850,000 days of work missed due to illness.
Barton blasted the testimony of Natural Resources Defense Council Clean Air Director John Walke, asserting “you’re not having the medical negative” from mercury, sulfur dioxide, or particular matter pollution.
He even argued enforcement of the air toxics rule would hurt Rep. John Dingell’s (D-Mich.) city of Detroit, where nearly one in three children have asthma, and where one power plant alone emits 1,235 pounds of mercury every year.
Barton denied decades of science and the experience of anyone who has ever lived downwind of a polluting facility, noting the factory and plant owners on the panel didn’t know of any workers inside their plants that have gotten sick from the pollution.
“I guess he forgot that the people most in risk of getting poisoned — babies — don’t work in factories,” Clean Air Watch’s Frank O’Donnell responded. “This is pretty appalling stuff, since Barton and colleagues will probably soon be voting on legislation to delay toxic pollution cleanup.”
Barton: In your testimony you say that these standards would save 17,000 lives, in terms of premature deaths a year I think, is that not correct?
Walke: That’s taken from EPA’s projection that up to 17,000 lives …
Barton: Let’s stipulate that it’s a number that you got from somewhere else.
Walke: Yes sir.
Barton: I’m going to ask every private sector individual here. I’ll start with Mr. Fanning [Tom Fanning, president of Southern Company]. How many cases in your company were there last year of mercury poisoning reported?
Fanning: None that I know of.
Barton: Does anybody know of mercury poisoning because of emissions from any of your plants? Do you know how many there were in the country last year? Zero. Zero. How about SO2? Any of you have any history in your plants of SO2 poisoning? Now, we cut SO2 emissions by 50 percent in the last decade, and this, if implemented cuts it another 50 percent, but takes it from 4 million tons a year annually to 2 million. Now, Mr. Walke, it’s not your statistic but it’s reported all the time! There is absolutely nothing to back it up!
Walke: Congressman Barton, with all due respect …
Walke: … that’s not correct.
Barton: Do you know how many — I’ll ask you. How many pounds of mercury are emitted from an average 500-megawatt coal-fired power plant a year?
Walke: Congressman Barton, those deaths …
Barton: Do you know the number?
Walke: … are attributed to deadly soot pollution …
Barton: Do you know the number?
Walke: … particulate matter, not mercury. So I want to be clear the basis of my claim. It’s particulate matter that kills people. EPA is not claiming mercury deaths.
Barton: All right, now let’s see that backed up.
Walke: I’d be happy to and it’s a great thing for this committee to have a hearing on with the National Academy of Sciences and the EPA.
Barton: The average 500-megawatt coal-fired power plant produced three pounds of mercury a year. Three pounds. According to Mr. Walke’s testimony these standards reduce this by 91 percent. Well that’s great! So you go from three pounds per plant to three tenths of a pound per plant. But that’s per year! Now, to actually cause poisoning or a premature death you have to get a large concentration of mercury into the body. I’m not a medical doctor, but my hypothesis is that’s not going to happen! You’re not going to get enough mercury exposure or SO2 exposure or even particulate matter exposure! I think the EPA numbers are pulled out of the thin air! And I’m going to send a document to the EPA, let’s back them up!
Because the entire premise for going forward with these standards is you get such a tremendous ratio of benefits to costs because they claim according to Mr. Walke’s testimony, he’s an honest man, and he got it from somewhere, is $140 billion annually! Well, if you don’t really have the benefit, because you’re not having the medical negative but you really have the costs — and if you don’t think the costs are real, just look how many factories are closing and going to Mexico and China, look at the population of Mr. Dingell’s home city, Detroit, Mich., it’s fallen by 40 percent I think in the last 20 years, if you don’t think those are real — so, if we’re going to have a real debate about these standards, Mr. Chairman, we need to start getting some real numbers from the EPA and getting the EPA up here, if it takes Mr. Rush’s help and Mr. Dingell’s and Mr. Waxman’s, if the benefits are not real and the costs are real, we’re absolutely wrong to force those standards!