On the night before Christmas, many Italian American families in New Jersey and across the United States celebrate a traditional meal known as the Feast of the Seven Fishes. But because of another, more unfortunate New Jersey tradition, the Department of Environmental Protection's warnings about mercury and other toxins in local seafood, we have to be careful about what we serve. Many types of fish and shellfish from waters around the state are labeled unsafe to eat.

However, there may come a time when we no longer have to worry about toxic levels of mercury in the fish we eat. This week, the Obama administration is expected to announce new safeguards designed to dramatically reduce mercury pollution in our air and water.

First proposed by President George H.W. Bush, these mercury standards are 20 years in the making. They will protect more Americans, particularly women of childbearing age and babies, from the birth defects, neurological disorders, and developmental delays that result from mercury poisoning.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, unsafe mercury levels afflict as many as one in six women. And the country's chief emitters of mercury are old, coal-fired power plants, which spew a poisonous stew of pollutants into our air and water every day.

Power plants have had many years to prepare for the EPA's new mercury standards. In fact, many have already updated their facilities to comply with the regulations and are urging the Obama administration to implement them on schedule. "It's entirely possible to comply with these rules and remain a profitable company," said an executive at Constellation Energy Group, which in 2008 cleaned up one of the nation's dirtiest coal-fired plants.

Nevertheless, you will hear polluters and their allies trying to scare us into believing that stronger mercury protections will somehow harm the economy. This is simply not true. The EPA estimates that the new safeguards will generate more than $100 billion in environmental benefits - far more than the estimated costs of compliance. What's more, the agency estimates that plant upgrades will create 31,000 construction jobs and 9,000 utility jobs.

New Jersey has strong mercury regulations in place, but, as the fish advisories make painfully clear, state-level protections aren't good enough. Neighboring Pennsylvania ranks third among the states in mercury emissions from power plants, according to a report by Environment America, accounting for almost 4,000 pounds in 2010. Much of that mercury ends up in New Jersey's lakes and rivers. Without federal protections, all the effort New Jersey's elected officials and businesses have put into cleaning up the state will be in vain.

Whether or not we celebrate the Feast of the Seven Fishes, we all want our food to be safe to eat. I'm glad there might be a Christmas when Italian Americans can enjoy a worry-free feast. And I'm glad we are moving to protect all New Jerseyans, especially our children, from the dangers of mercury pollution.

James J. Florio is a former governor of New Jersey and a founding partner of Florio, Perrucci, Steinhardt, & Fader.