W E WONDER: Do the people who oppose the new standards for mercury and other toxic emissions from coal-fired power plants believe that their children are somehow immune from the birth defects and lower IQs caused by these poisons?
(We also wonder if they think that somehow they can partition off their own little section of the atmosphere to breathe - or somehow find a haven from global warming-induced hurricanes, tornadoes and tsunamis. But let's just stick with mercury - and arsenic, chromium, nickel and acid gases - for today.)
Last week, the Environmental Protection Agency issued new rules that limit the amount of toxic gases that power plants can emit, and gives them three years to either retrofit or shut down.
Actually, 60 percent of 178 coal plants recently surveyed are already meeting the proposed standard, but some plants will require major changes and others will have to shut down. That's not a bad thing. Some of them are the very same plants that were "grandfathered" in so that they would not have to meet the standards of the original 1977 Clean Air Act.
The Mad Hatter character in "Alice in Wonderland" reflects what we have known since the 19th century: mercury is powerfully bad stuff. Hatmakers used mercury compounds and often suffered brain and nerve damage as a result.
In the modern world, elevated mercury levels in children and pregnant women can result in lower IQs. Each year, 400,000 infants are born with elevated mercury levels that could result in them having permanent difficulty in learning and thinking .
The EPA says that the new standards will prevent 11,000 premature deaths and 130,000 cases of aggravated asthma among children per year. The new standards will cost $10 billion in cleanup costs, but will save over $90 billion in medical costs. Sounds like a pretty good deal, and there are other economic benefits: retrofitting facilities and installing and monitoring pollution control devices will result in 1.5 million new jobs over the next five years.
All too predictably, the coal industry - and the increasingly radical, and irrational, anti-environment Republicans in Congress - went quite mad themselves, predicting energy blackouts and economic turmoil if the rules stand. And, of course, they blamed President Obama.
But Obama can't take credit for these potentially world-changing health and environmental benefits. The standards have been in development for more than 20 years, ever since President George H.W. Bush signed into law amendments to the Clean Air Act that had been passed with an overwhelming bipartisan majority in Congress. Years of foot-dragging followed until, finally, a federal court ordered that the rules be generated. Who knows how much human potential was lost in the delay?