Memo From New England: EPA’s Clean Air Standards Following New England’s Example

John Kassel

There is a saying that as goes Maine, so goes the nation. That is proving to be true, with one slight twist: As goes New England, so goes the nation’s environmental policy.

If you look at a wind map of the United States you’ll see that all prevailing winds east of the Mississippi eventually converge right here, in New England. That helps make New England the place so many of us love – warm summers, stunning falls, and cold, snowy winters – but it also makes New England the tailpipe of the nation.

Beginning in the mid-20th century, researchers began documenting evidence of the effect of acid rain on Camel’s Hump in Vermont’s Green Mountains. They documented dramatic decreases in biomass, forest reproduction, seed germination, and other damaging effects among such species as red spruce, mountain maple, sugar maple, and beech – some of the trees whose brilliant fall colors draw millions of tourists to New England each fall. The cause? Acid rain.

Today, the problem continues, though in different ways. Antiquated coal plants built before 1970 have long enjoyed loopholes in the Clean Air Act that allowed them to emit toxic pollutants without modern controls. They have spewed a mix of mercury, arsenic, lead, and soot that harms all Americans by degrading our air and water quality, as well as our public health by increasing the rates of lung disease and causing asthma attacks, among other ailments. Even though many New England states have imposed modern controls on their plants, winds continue to carry pollution from the rest of the country that harms New England’s environment and its people.

That’s why today’s ruling from the EPA on the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) is so laudable. As my colleague Jonathan Peress said in a press statement, these standards “amount to one of the most significant public health and environmental measures in years.” They are also similar to standards we adopted here in New England years ago.

According to EPA estimates, these standards will prevent 11,000 heart attacks and 130,000 asthma attacks annually among Americans by 2016. The standards will also save at least $59 billion measured as a reduction in premature deaths, lower health care costs, and fewer absences from work or school. That is undoubtedly a good thing. It is also undoubtedly long overdue.

The affected coal plants are toxic dinosaurs. According to an AP survey, the average age of the plants is 51 years – some of them were even built when Harry S Truman was president. EPA’s new standards will finally allow the public health protections, signed into law by George H.W. Bush as a part of the Clean Air Act of 1990, to do their job. As Ilan Levin, associate director of Environmental Integrity Project, said in a piece on Climate Progress, “The only thing more shocking than the large amounts of toxic chemicals released into the air each year … is the fact that these emissions have been allowed for so many years.”

Here in New England, we have long understood the importance of controlling harmful pollution. CLF together with a close coalition pushed for strict state air pollution standards to clean up the dirtiest plants in Massachusetts. In 2001, the Department of Environmental Protection adopted regulations known as “The Filthy Five” that went beyond the Federal Clean Air Act of 1970, and tackled the issues of mercury and carbon dioxide. From our experience with stringent state standards in Massachusetts and Connecticut, we know the substantial benefits to public health and the environment that will result from these rules.

Concern that these standards will directly shut down plants is misguided. According to an AP survey, “not a single plant operator said the EPA rules were solely to blame for a closure.” Instead, a confluence of factors have already initiated a broad technology shift we’re already seeing here in New England: coal prices are rising and natural gas prices are declining against a background of strict state clean air rules. Given this, many (but not all) of New England’s plants have either already installed modern pollution controls, or are actively planning for retirement, in ways that will keep the lights on.

I applaud the EPA, and Administrator Jackson, for their good work on these standards. We will continue to support them, and they’ll need our help.

And in any event, how long are people to suffer while clean air requirements on the books go unenforced? 21 years (since 1990) is too long. The time has come. Finally.

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