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Removing Mercury and Other Toxics From the Air We Breathe

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is taking another important step in our mission to safeguard the health of millions of Americans.

This week, the EPA proposed Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, a Clean Air Act protection that sets the first-ever national safeguards to limit power plant releases of mercury, arsenic, chromium, nickel and acid gases into the air we breathe. America’s power plants are the source of half of the mercury emissions, half of the acid gases, and a quarter of all toxic metal pollution in the U.S, and almost half of America’s coal plants lack advanced pollution controls. Instead of operating without set limits for these pollutants – which are linked to costly and often fatal health threats like asthma, cancer and developmental disorders – American power plants will install widely available, American made pollution control technology to cut emissions.

Setting commonsense goals for reducing harmful pollution in the air we breathe can save lives, prevent illnesses and promote the creation of new jobs. We’re confident in these expectations for the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards because this has been the history of Clean Air Act protections for the last forty years.

In 2010 alone, protections in the Clean Air Act prevented 160,000 premature deaths and 170,000 hospital visits. Cleaner air has meant trillions of dollars in benefits to our nation – not only through fewer medical bills, but by keeping our kids in school and our workers on the job. The Clean Air Act has also helped create jobs. As of 2008 the environmental technology industry – which develops, manufactures and maintains the tools that help keep our air clean – employed more than 1.7 million Americans.

The Mercury and Air Toxics Standards build on this decades-long success. Once the standards are in place, widespread use of existing pollution control technology will prevent an estimated 17,000 premature deaths and 11,000 heart attacks each year. These safeguards will also protect against 120,000 incidents of childhood asthma symptoms and ensure 11,000 fewer cases of acute bronchitis in children each year, making this is one of the largest steps forward in protecting our kids from toxic air pollution in a generation.

Implementing these proposed standards is also expected to create jobs. The Mercury and Air Toxics Standards will increase demand for pollution control technology that is already being produced by American companies. And new workers will be needed to install, operate and maintain pollution control technology. We estimate these first-ever standards will support 31,000 construction jobs and 9,000 long-term utility jobs.

The Mercury and Air Toxics Standards will also be beneficial to American utilities. Setting clear standards alleviates 20 years of uncertainty, and opens a long-awaited path for investments in multi-pollution reduction planning, energy efficiency and clean technology. It will level the playing field, closing loopholes for big polluters and putting our cleanest power generators at a competitive advantage. Consistent with the President’s Executive Order, EPA is ensuring flexibility, cost effectiveness and robust public comment before finalizing the standards.

The Mercury and Air Toxics Standards represent a milestone in the Clean Air Act’s already unprecedented record of defending the health of American families. At the EPA, we are eager to work with the American people through the coming public comment period, so that we can craft safeguards that best protect our health and strengthen our economy.

Lisa Jackson is Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency