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EPA head defends Clean Air Act, slams "special interests" who claim mercury isn't a toxin (6/15)

June 15, 2011
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The following is the recent testimony of Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Lisa P. Jackson before the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works:

Madam Chairman, thank you for inviting me to testify about EPA’s ongoing efforts to protect our health by reducing the air pollution that affects millions of Americans. I know this subject very personally because my son is one of the more than 25 million Americans battling asthma.

Let me begin my testimony with a matter of fact: pollution, such as mercury and particulate matter, shortens and reduces the quality of Americans’ lives and puts at risk the health and development of future generations.

We know mercury is a toxin that causes neurological damage to adults, children and developing fetuses. We know mercury causes neurological damage, including lost IQ point in children. And we know particulate matter can lead to respiratory disease, decreased lung function and even pre-mature death. These pollutants – and others including arsenic, chromium and acid gases –come from power plants.

These are simple facts that should not be up for debate.

“They’re saying the exact opposite” However, Madam Chairman, while Americans across the country suffer from this pollution, special interests who are trying to gut long-standing public health protections are now going so far as to claim that these pollutants aren’t even harmful. These myths are being perpetrated by some of the same lobbyists who have in the past testified before Congress about the importance of reducing mercury and particulate matter. Now on behalf of their clients, they’re saying the exact opposite.

The good news is that to address this pollution problem, in 1970 Congress passed the Clean Air Act - which was signed into law by a Republican President, and then strengthened in 1990 under another Republican Administration.

Last year alone, the Clean Air Act is estimated to have saved 160,000 lives and prevented more than 100,000 hospital visits. Simply put, protecting public health and the environment should not be – and historically has not been – a partisan issue.

Despite all the distractions, let me assure you that EPA will continue to base all of our public health protections on two key principles: the law and the best science. Allow me to focus on two current activities.

National standards proposed

On March 16, after 20 years in the making, EPA proposed the first ever national standards for mercury and other toxic air pollution from power plants. While many power plants already comply, the standards will level the playing field by requiring additional power plants to install widely-available, proven pollution control technologies.

Deployment of these technologies will prevent an estimated:
  • 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
  • 850,000 days of work missed due to illness
This proposed rule, which is going through a public comment process, is the product of significant outreach to industry and other stakeholders.

As we work at EPA to cut down on mercury and other toxins from power plants, we’re also trying to reduce sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide through the “Clean Air Transport Rule” we proposed last year.

This rule requires 31 states and the District of Columbia to reduce their emissions of these two pollutants – which contribute to ozone and fine particle pollution across state lines – thereby significantly improving air quality in cities across the U.S. Utilities can achieve these reductions by investing in widely-available technology.

The costs and benefits of public health protections

Once finalized, this rule will result in more than $120 billion in health benefits each year. EPA estimates this rule will protect public health by avoiding:
  • 14,000 to 36,000 premature death
  • 21,000 cases of acute bronchitis
  • 23,000 nonfatal heart attacks
  • 240,000 cases of aggravated asthma
  • 440,000 cases of upper and lower respiratory symptoms
  • 26,000 hospital and emergency room visits
  • 1.9 million days of work or school missed due to illness
These numbers represent a major improvement in the quality of life for literally millions of people throughout the country – especially working families, children and older Americans.

While some argue that public health protections are too costly, history has repeatedly shown that we can clean up pollution, create jobs and grow our economy all at the same time.

Over the 40 years since the Clean Air Act was passed, the U.S. Gross Domestic Product grew more than 200 percent. In fact, some economic analysis suggests that the economy is billions of dollars larger today than it would have been without the Act.

Simply put, the Clean Air Act saves lives and strengthens the American workforce. As a result, the economic value of clean air far exceeds the costs. Expressed in dollar terms, the benefits of the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 alone are projected to reach approximately $2 trillion in 2020, with an estimated cost of $65 billion in that same year – a benefit to cost ratio of more than 30 to 1.

With legislation pending in Congress to weaken and gut this proven public health protection law, I urge this committee to stand up for the hundreds of millions of Americans who are directly or indirectly affected by air pollution.

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