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Protecting American Families and the Environment from Mercury Pollution

President Obama discusses historic new mercury pollutions standards.

Watch President Obama's full remarks here.

Today marks yet another historic day in the Obama Administration’s efforts to protect the health of American families and our environment.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has finalized the first-ever national standards to reduce mercury and other toxic air emissions – like arsenic, acid gas, and cyanide – from power plants, which are the largest sources of this pollution in the United States.

This crucial step forward will bring enormous public health benefits. By substantially reducing emissions of toxic pollutants that lead to neurological damage, cancer, respiratory illnesses, and other serious health issues, these standards will benefit millions of people across the country, but especially children, older Americans, and other vulnerable populations. Cumulatively, the total health and economic benefits to society could reach $90 billion each year.

When fully implemented, these new standards will, on an annual basis, help prevent:

  • Up to 11,000 premature deaths;
  • 2,800 cases of chronic bronchitis;
  • 4,700 heart attacks;
  • 130,000 asthma attacks;
  • 5,700 hospital and emergency room visits; and
  • 540,000 days when people miss work or school.

Notably, today’s announcement has roots that trace back more than two decades, when Congress passed landmark, bipartisan legislation requiring the United States to limit toxic air emissions from the nation’s biggest polluters. Yet that legislation was only a first step. Today more than twenty years later, mercury and other toxic air pollution from power plants remains unchecked. That is, until now.

These sensible new standards were developed with extensive input from the public as well as industry and can be implemented with widely available and cost-effective pollution control technology. The United States is a global market leader in the design and manufacture of these technologies, and American companies and workers will provide much of the equipment and labor needed to meet the substantial investments in pollution controls that these standards will generate.

To be sure, in the weeks and months to come, there will be some in Congress that will try to prevent these important standards from being implemented. Some will argue that these standards will negatively impact electric reliability across America, even though an independent analysis from the Department of Energy shows clearly that is not the case. Others will claim that there is not enough time to comply with these standards, despite the fact that these rules have been in the works for 20 years. Finally, some will say this step is too costly and we should opt for even more delay, despite the fact that for every one dollar we spend to reduce pollution under these standards, American families will see up to $9 dollars in health benefits. 

In conjunction with the release of the rule, President Obama also issued a Presidential Memorandum which underscores the health benefits of the rule and directs EPA Administrator Jackson to use flexibilities built into the Clean Air Act where needed, and to work proactively with states, industry and other entities in a transparent manner to implement the rule in way that delivers the health benefits of the rule while addressing reliability concerns.

At the end of the day, President Obama believes that Americans have waited long enough for these common-sense standards and that it is now time to do what is right for the country. To hear him make the case in his own words, check out the video.

Heather Zichal is the Deputy Assistant to the President for Energy and Climate Change