Lower Merion Hosts Panel Discussion on EPA Regulations
The EPA is poised to pass new regulations governing mercury emissions, but the House may intervene.
A throng of concerned citizens gathered at Lower Merion High School on Thursday night for a panel discussion on air quality and its implications.
Hosted by environmental advocacy group PennEnvironment and the Lower Merion School District Green Council, the panel was comprised of Dr. Walter Tsou, Rep. Gregory Vitali (D-166), Rep. Tim Briggs (D-149), PennEnvironment field director Adam Garber, and respiratory therapist Mary Pat Tanz.
Much of the discussion centered on an updated set of standards the EPA recently proposed that would regulate the emission of mercury and other toxins from power plants and industrial sites. The Mercury and Air Toxins Standard (MATS), on track to be instituted next fall, would mandate a 90 percent reduction in mercury emissions and also dictate that new plants match or better the emission performance of the top-performing plant in each pollutant category. Older plants would be granted more time to meet the new standards.
Though MATS isn't expected to prescribe a mechanism by which the reductions would be met, most would likely be achieved through the use of mercury "scrubbers" --devices that, in the case of mercury, use a liquid filter to separate pollutants from a gas.
The scrubbers would be costly, but according to Tsou, well worth it from a public health perspective.
"It'll cost $10 billion to implement," said the former Health Commissioner of Philadelphia. "But the health costs associated with these chemicals are $100 billion."
He said many power plants have already embraced them voluntarily.
"60 percent [of nuclear power plants] already have [scrubbers] in place, and it's just a matter of getting these other 40 percent on board... it's estimated that these scrubbers can remove 90 percent of mercury," added Tsou.
Mercury, a potent neurotoxin that can cause cognitive dysfunction and immune system problems if ingested in sufficiently high doses (and is especially problematic for children and women who are pregnant or breastfeeding), is released into the atmosphere when coal is burned. It then precipitates down into bodies of water, where it is consumed by fish who are in turn consumed by people.
"There's now mercury in most of the fish that we eat," said Tsou, adding that air quality has also been compromised. "Frankly, we can't continue to breathe toxic air like we are right now....it just doesn't make any sense."
Steps to address mercury pollution wouldn't come at the expense of jobs either, argued Rep. Briggs. After quoting at length from a memorandum issued by Governor Tom Corbett that framed the governor's opposition to new and standing environmental regulations in terms of job growth, Briggs countered that the EPA estimated the new mercury standards would create 31,000 new construction jobs.
"And it's irresponsible for Governor Corbett to be slashing environmental regulatory efforts while he's giving a free ride to these companies that are making hundreds of millions of dollars," Briggs added.
The newly proposed regulations will also face stiff resistance from the Republican-controlled House, according to Garber. In the most recent budget vote (which subsequently didn't pass in the Senate), the House voted to block the EPA from bolstering emission regulations like MATS.
"They would effectively defund it," he explained after the panel discussion. "The regulation wouldn't be able to progress any further."
He urged Lower Merion residents to hold their congressman accountable for the vote to stifle MATS.
"Jim Gerlach (R-Sixth District) voted for it... and 260,000 thousand people in Jim Gerlach's district have asthma," he said.
While Garber acknowledged it's unlikely such an attenuation of the EPA's power would be passed into law, he said that its passage in the House alone amounts to a significant symbolic blow to all environmental causes. It delegitimatizes them.
Further blows could be avoided, he said, with advocacy. He suggested audience members call their congressmen and speak to their friends about the regulations.