(MintPress) — As the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) celebrates 40 years of the Clean Air Act, a U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a portion of the legislation, ridding coal companies of the responsibility to look out for their stately neighbors when it comes to pollution.
The Cross State Air Pollution Rule was the subject of litigation, resulting in a close 2-1 decision, in which judges ruled in favor of throwing that portion of the Act out, deciding in favor of large coal-burning companies like American Electric Power, Inc. Under the rule, the EPA limited the emissions of nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxides that could flow to downwind states, contributing to ozone damage and health issues.
Twenty-seven states were involved in the Cross State Air Pollution Rule, a point the judges used in their argument, claiming the contribution to pollutions in upwind states is not covered. This, it was argued in the opinion, created an uneven playing field among coal-burning plants, limiting emissions for some, and not those to the south.
“Each upwind state must bear its own fair share,” the opinion states. “Therefore, the ‘significance’ of each upwind state’s contribution cannot be measured in a vacuum, divorced from the impact of the other upwind states.”
Yet environmental activist organizations are claiming that the rule is anything but fair, as it will put the lives of up to 34,000 people in jeopardy each year, emitting harmful pollutants into the air that can then be dispersed to those in downstream states.
“This decision allows harmful power plant air pollution to continue to aggravate major health problems and foul up our air,” Natural Resources Defense Council Clean Air Director John Walke told Common Dreams. “This is a loss for all of us, but especially for those living downwind from major polluters.”
What are the health risks?
According to the EPA, the rule would have saved between $120 and $280 billion in 2014 in health and environmental benefits, along with the avoidance of 13,000-34,000 premature deaths. Using such statistics, the EPA argues that the situation is a win-win, claiming that it wouldn’t prevent a company from providing the necessary electricity.
So what are the health risks being averted?
It’s no secret that there are legitimate health risks associated with pollutants emitted from coal burning plants. According to Eco Hearth, an environmental watch group, coal-burning plants are among the worst in the nation, in terms of pollution.
Sulfur dioxide, recognized as a main coal emitent, is a contributor to heart disease and asthma, according to the EPA. Nitrogen Oxide, another key coal pollutant, has been ties to the destruction of lung tissue.
Mercury is another issue of concern. According to Eco Hearth, 40 percent of mercury pollution stems from coal-burning plants, an alarming statistic considering the known carcinogenic properties and the propensity to be absorbed by the fish population. Mothers are cautioned to steer clear from eating fish during stages of pregnancy, and everyone is cautioned to limit fish consumption due to mercury contamination.
The threat for such mercury poisoning isn’t limited to the areas directly surrounding coal-burning plants, either. “Mercury, a known carcinogen, is of particular concern as it poisons fish in bodies of water miles away,” according to Eco Hearth research.
A report prepared by Environmental Health and Engineering, Inc. echoes these sentiments. As stated in the report, hazardous air pollutants are defined by Congress as “chemical pollutants that are known or suspected to cause cancer or other serious health effects, such as reproductive problems or birth defects, and that adversely affect the environment.”
In the report, it states that coal-fired power plants emit into the atmosphere 84 of the 187 hazardous air pollutants that pose a threat to human health and the environment, as defined by the EPA. It echoes previous studies that it is the largest source of hydrochloric acid, mercury and arsenic released into the air.
Yet with advanced studies and acknowledgement by Congress that coal-burning power plants emit dangerous chemicals, which cause health and environmental damage, an addition to the Act is being cut. At a time of advancing science, environmental regulations are being rolled back.
Why the rollback? Why now?
While the Clean Air Act has been around since 1970, various amendments have been added through the years in response to emerging science and concerns, most of which came in 1990. Despite the concerns that led to the adoption of the regulation, it never did make its way officially into the Act. Instead, it was challenged by large power companies, who were the recent successors in district court.
The environmental community isn’t backing down, claiming that the court struck down a provision that should have been in place long ago — one that had the potential to save humans from suffering health-related complications.
“The court’s decision imperils long overdue clean air safeguards for millions of Americans,” General Counsel of Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), Vicki Patton, said in a press release. “EDF will immediately seek corrective action to protect the lives of Americans harmed by power plant smokestack pollution.”
The state of Texas disagrees. It was one of 14 states to join the lawsuit against the rule, coming alongside large power companies, including publicly traded American Electric Power Co. According to the Wall Street Journal, that very company is in the process of shutting down coal plants in Ohio and neighboring states, largely due to regulations relating to mercury emissions.
Politically speaking, the decision would likely align with Mitt Romney, who has attacked President Barack Obama for environmental regulations on the coal industry. While not specifically addressing this issue, it’s clear the new rule was a regulation — one which the coal industry claimed hampered its efforts to do business.
The decision, while stated to be made on the basis of EPA overreach, rather than environmental concern, is a success for those within the Romney campaign. It sheds light on the growing trend toward fewer regulations, environmental included, in favor of business growth.
The problem now, according to environmental organizations, is that pollutants that are known to be hazardous will not likely be subject to future regulations. The results of this, according to the EPA, will be devastating. In its report associated with the Cross State Air Pollution Rule, the EPA claims that it had the potential to save tens of thousands of lives.
While not providing background of studies that led to such statistics, the EPA cites research as showing that the regulation could have prevented 15,000 premature heart attacks, 19,000 hospital and emergency room visits and 420,000 cases of upper and lower respiratory system ailments.