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EPA Announces Landmark Mercury Standards for Power Plants

December 22, 2011

ST. PAUL, Minn. - It's being called an historic achievement. Twenty-two years after getting the authority from Congress, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has finally announced its first-ever nationwide standards for mercury and toxic air pollution from power plants.

J Drake Hamilton, science policy director for Minnesota-based Fresh Energy, says the standards will be phased in over the next four years and are expected to reduce pollution from power plants by 91 percent.

"This is really good news for human health, because it turns out that the pollutants that we're talking about cause nerve damage in kids, brain damage in kids, premature deaths, asthma attacks, heart attacks and cancer."

The reduction in pollution from the standards is expected to save some 11,000 lives a year, adds Hamilton.

Those opposed to the rule have, among other concerns, pointed to the cost of the overhaul. Hamilton agrees the transformation will not be cheap, but says it will more than pay for itself in the long run, as fewer people suffer from diseases caused or exacerbated by the pollutants.

"The cost of doing that will be about $9.6 billion, but the health benefits will be at least triple that amount. So, you invest dollars in cleaning up the power supply, you keep the lights on, and you greatly improve the health of human beings."

In Hamilton's opinion, the reductions are vital to protect the great outdoor traditions in the "Land of 10,000 Lakes," where last year alone, she says, mercury pollution reached nearly 900 pounds.

"To give you a sense of the context, less than a teaspoon of mercury is enough to contaminate the fish in a 20-acre lake. So, these air toxins are very potent; they're very powerful. They can cause a lot of damage to the food chain and the fish, and to the people who eat those fish."

Minnesota has been ahead of the curve on this issue with legislation that was passed in 2006 ordering a reduction of mercury at the six largest power plants in the state. More than a dozen others in Minnesota will now be covered by this new national rule.

More details about the new Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) are online at www.epa.gov/mats.

John Michaelson, Public News Service - MN