Wednesday, June 08, 2011
The Environmental Protection Agency recently issued 946 pages of new rules, requiring that U.S. power plants sharply reduce (already low) emissions of mercury and 83 other air pollutants. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson claims that, while the regulations will cost electricity producers $10.9 billion annually, they will save 17,000 lives and generate up to $140 billion in health benefits.
There is no factual basis for these assertions. To build its case, EPA systematically ignored evidence and ignored clinical studies that contradict its regulatory agenda, which is to punish hydrocarbon use.
Mercury (Hg) has always existed naturally in Earth’s environment. A 2009 study found numerous spikes (and drops) in mercury deposition in Antarctic ice over the past 650,000-years. Mercury is found in air, water, rocks, soil and in trees, which absorb it from the environment. This is why our bodies evolved with proteins and antioxidants that help protect us from this and other potential contaminants.
A further defense comes from selenium, which is found in fish and animals. Its strong attraction to mercury molecules protects fish and people against buildups of methylmercury, mercury’s biologically active and more toxic form. Thus, the 200,000,000 tons of mercury naturally present in seawater have never posed a danger to any living being, even though they could theoretically be converted into methylmercury.
Modern technologies enable us to detect infinitesimal amounts in air and water. However, quantities of mercury measured in lake waters are often no more than 0.00000001 gram of mercury per liter. Lab technicians typically wear special garments when measuring mercury levels, not to protect themselves — but to ensure accurate measurements, because even breathing on a sample can triple a reading!
How do America’s coal-burning power plants enter into the picture?
The latest government, university and independent studies reveal that those power plants emit an estimated 41-48 tons of mercury per year. However, U.S. forest fires emit at least 44 tons per year; cremation of human remains discharges 26 tpy; Chinese power plants eject 400 tpy; and volcanoes, subsea vents, geysers and other sources spew out 9,000-10,000 additional tons per year!
All these emissions enter the global atmospheric system and become part of the U.S. air mass.
Thus, U.S. power plants account for less than 0.5 percent of all the mercury in the air Americans breathe. Even eliminating every milligram of this mercury will do nothing about the other 99.5 percent in America’s atmosphere.
And yet, in the face of these minuscule risks, EPA nevertheless demands that utility companies spend billions every year retrofitting coal-fired power plants that produce half of all U.S. electricity, and 70-98 percent of electricity in twelve states. Its regulators simultaneously ignore the positive results of medical studies that clearly show its new restrictions are not needed and will not improve people’s health.