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Air Pollution Decision May Delay Saving Lives

Monday's U.S. Supreme Court decision could delay a more permanent implementation of new air pollution rules for coal-fired power plants. The EPA says the new air pollution regulations would save thousands of lives a year. Photo courtesy of the Sierra Club.
Monday's U.S. Supreme Court decision could delay a more permanent implementation of new air pollution rules for coal-fired power plants. The EPA says the new air pollution regulations would save thousands of lives a year. Photo courtesy of the Sierra Club.
June 30, 2015

RICHMOND, Va. – A Supreme Court decision may have cast doubt on controls for mercury and other airborne toxins from power plants – but it didn't throw them out.

The high court decision could delay a permanent implementation of new air pollution rules, which the EPA says will save thousands of lives.

In a five-to-four decision, the court said the EPA should have considered the cost to industry earlier in the process of writing pollution limits.

Jim Pew, an attorney with Earthjustice, says whether or not the regulators documented it, the public will gain benefits of $3 to $9 for every $1 the protections cost. He says industry "propaganda" and legal arguments obscure that.

"Nobody is really disputing that this rule is going to save between 4,000 and 11,000 lives every year," he says. "To me, it really doesn't make sense that EPA would be unpopular for doing something that helps so many people."

The power and coal industries have argued the health-related savings are far less than the cost of compliance with the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards.

The air pollution rules have the greatest impact on coal-fired power plants. Some conservation groups say most coal plants have already adapted or taken new pollution limits into account, so it's unlikely the Supreme Court ruling will have a significant impact. Pew says the case may have been about the technicalities of the EPA's rule-making process, seen by some as a stall tactic by the energy industry.

"Everyone has known for decades that power plants are the worst toxic-emitters," he says. "The industry has been fighting tooth-and-nail against controlling its pollution, very successfully, for years. Even if they succeed in nothing but delaying these controls, they save a lot of money."

The Supreme Court sent the case back to a lower court for review. The rules went into effect in 2012, and will remain in effect pending action by the lower court.

Dan Heyman, Public News Service - VA