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Guest Column

More stringent clean air rules good for the United States and Georgia

By Guest Columnist JENNETTE GAYER, policy coordinator for Environment Georgia, a citizen-based environmental advocacy organization

The disaster that continues to unfold in Japan has caused people to think a little deeper about the health and safety of their families, and what protections we have in place to keep us safe from dangerous pollution.

In Georgia, air quality is still a huge problem. As a country, we depend heavily on sources of energy – coal, oil, natural gas – that put public health at risk from air pollution. For example, the Clean Air Task Force estimates 536 Georgians die early deaths every year from inhaling soot emitted from power plants.

Power plants also emit toxic pollutants like mercury and arsenic. When young children are exposed to mercury, it can interfere with their ability to learn, talk, read, and write. The problem is so bad EPA estimates that as many as one in six American women have enough mercury in their bodies to put a baby at risk.

A recent report by Environment Georgia shows that Georgia’s power plants emit over 3,800 pounds of mercury annually, over our western boarder, Alabama emits even more. Much of this mercury ends up in our waterways and fish. Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division (EPD) has placed fish consumption warning, on thousands of miles of rivers and streams, including the Chattahoochee River, and over a dozen lakes because of mercury contamination.

On March 16, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposed a critical new standard to protect public health. If implemented, this new rule could mean that one day all of Georgia’s waterways are clean enough for unlimited fish consumption. It could also bring some relief to the 281,496 adults and children suffering from asthma in Atlanta’s four county region.

The proposed rule—called the Mercury and Air Toxics Rule (MATR)—is one of the strongest guardians against air pollution since passage of the Clean Air Act in 1970.

In fact, the EPA estimates that nationally this rule will:

• Cut mercury and acid gases from power plants by 91 percent;
• Cut sulfur dioxide emissions by 55 percent;
• By 2016, save:
o Up to 17,000 premature deaths
o 12,200 hospital visits
o 120,000 asthma attacks
o 850,000 missed work days
• Avoid up to $140 billion in health costs in 2016.

Unfortunately, lobbyists from the coal and oil industries are already working to weaken and outright block EPA’s new rules. They’re running paid ads, spreading misinformation, and predicting that these new standards will make the lights go out and destroy the American economy.

Their tactics and stories aren’t new: throughout EPA’s history, these same industries have spent millions to block or weaken other public health standards and have stalled the regulation of toxics like mercury from power plants since they were added to the Clean Air Acts purview in 1990.

In reality, many other types of industries have been reducing mercury emissions and many other toxic air pollutants under the Clean Air Act’s MACT program. For example, municipal and medical waste incinerators have been achieving 90 percent mercury reductions since the late 1990’s using a technology called activated carbon injection (ACI) that many power plant operators also will employ to meet the proposed mercury standards.

The Mercury and Air Toxics Rule will be open to public comment soon, and the EPA has announced tentative plans to hold a hearing in Atlanta. The rule will be finalized in November 2011.

Our health is too important to delay these new pollution standards. The Clean Air Act has proven to be one of the greatest tools we have to cost-effectively protect Americans’ health and our environment. A new report by the EPA found that in 2010 alone the Clean Air Act saved 160,000 lives nationwide and that the future implementation of the Clean Air Act will lead to $2 trillion in economic benefits by 2020.

The Clean Air Act’s health protections have made our society more productive, too, by preventing 3.2 million missed school days and 13 million missed workdays last year alone from avoided illness.

I urge you to join us in supporting this new rule–we cannot afford to wait.

Jennette Gayer at the Tybee Island pier


  1. Gordon Rogers March 28, 2011 12:55 pm

    And, Georgia is considering adding THREE MORE coal-fired plants: one in Early County, one in Washington County, and one in Ben Hill County. The first two are being litigated against by river protection groups, sportsmen, local citizens, and the Sierra Club. The one in Ben Hill is being opposed by local citizens and river protection groups at the “zoning” level. Readers should find out more about these actions and activities, and join with these citizens and groups to oppose putting more soot, more mercury, in our air and water. Farming, forestry, fishing, and our health are threatened by stripping soils of nutrients, competition with prescription burn, mercury pollution,and the other factors that Ms. Gayer outlines. Google up “Georgians for Smart Energy” or your local riverkeeper (Altamaha, Coosa, Flint, Ogeechee, Savannah, Upper Chattahoochee) to find out more about how you can help. — Gordon Rogers, Flint RiverkeeperReport

  2. Chandra Brown March 28, 2011 1:18 pm

    South Georgia’s streams are particularly vulnerable to mercury pollution. We MUST get these dirty coal plants to clean up, and stop new sources of mercury to our fish and rivers.

    Learn more at: http://www.mercury-free-families.com

    It’s high time we can feed fish to our families without worrying about the toxic effects of mercury on our children’s development.Report

  3. Pablo Yammamoto March 28, 2011 4:07 pm

    This sounds like a great rule. Tealistically, what’s the opposition going to be like?
    I’d love to see a story about how the Georgia Chamber of Commerce can fight many initiatives like this by saying something about how it’ll cost X many jobs.
    And then the media runs with it.
    As a parent, I’d rather my child have better health than more material objects. Why is that so hard for others to get?Report

  4. Ellen Corrie March 28, 2011 7:39 pm

    If we allow the proposed, new plants to be built we’re continuing to trade health, safety, clean air and water for false choices and questionable facts. And here in S. GA we’ll be trading our rural heritage. We’re told we need the power and will get jobs but I’ve never seen convincing evidence we need more power plants. And have seen convincing evidence we waste a sinful amount of energy and that energy alternatives such as solar, etc. and energy efficiencies create jobs. If you want to know more about the proposed Plant Ben Hill go to http://www.WiregrassEnergyNetwork.com.Report

  5. Midge Sweet March 28, 2011 11:52 pm

    Mercury pollution in our air primarily comes from coal combustion power plants, which also contribute to soot in our air. Georgia’s waterways are especially vulnerable to mercury which is absorbed by fish and eaten by humans. Right now there are smart energy options that we can use instead of centuries old coal-burning “technology”. Georgia could get 24% of its energy from solar rooftop arrays, and meet our energy demands through energy efficiency measures. It means doing things differently. It means engaging small businesses in solar and energy retrofits. It means supporting an innovative energy economy and not energy from “good old ways” –which aren’t so good given the dangers that mercury presents.Report

  6. Katherine Helms Cummings March 29, 2011 5:10 pm

    Rural Georgians depend on clean groundwater and streams for their homes and farms. Our health and the value of our homes are worthless without adequate clean water. We work hard every day to be good stewards of our natural resources as we will pay the price sooner than anyone else.

    Just as we are responsible for educating our children and caring for our senior citizens, reducing the amount of pollution in our air and water are just as important. We have a moral obligation to do that for our children. The last thing I want to explain to my grandchildren is, “Why didn’t you do something, Yaya? Didn’t you know better?”Report

  7. Sarah Alexander April 4, 2011 10:07 pm

    The problem of air and mercury pollution can seem daunting, especially when we see its effects in our own backyards. The numbers and data are grim–as Ms. Gayer states, each year, hundreds of Georgians’ lives are being lost directly as a result of toxic levels of air pollution, and thousands of pounds of mercury are emitted from our own power plants . Sometimes I find these numbers hard to digest until I envision their repercussions on a more personal level. I think of my younger sister, who developed asthma at a young age and who often can’t exercise outside because of the harmful levels of air pollution. I think about going on fishing trips to the Chattahoochee with my dad as a kid, and being disappointed every time I had to throw back a big catch because it was not safe for us to eat. And more importantly, I think of my future children, of the generations of kids to come after me who may not get to experience truly clean air or clean river water. Georgia has the chance to take a leadership role in showing support for the EPA’s new rule. We have the chance to make our opinions known, to tell the coal and oil lobbyists that we are going to hold them responsible for their companies’ actions. We have the opportunity to demand change. The technology is already there to make the transition to a cleaner future. Now, we just need the public to show its enthusiasm and support for the proposed legislation.Report

  8. Barrett McMullan April 8, 2011 3:55 pm

    It is hard for me to fathom the arguments that may be made against further pollution reduction, until I consider the economic views of many major industries. Companies are working to maximize revenue, either by cutting cost or by implementing new technologies that will allow them to grow. Unfortunately the former is the tactic most chosen due to its simplistic nature. This drives the energy sector to lobby against new regulations that would require improvements such as pollution reduction and higher efficiency. Rather than spending on lobbying and preventing the bill, companies could spend their money developing sources of renewable energy, thus creating new innovation and expanding their revenue in that way. The incentive for short term cost cutting is too great, so incentives for alternative energy should be expanded, and pollution control should be enforced and penalized.

    The public health concern is one that commands the attention of all people, especially those in Georgia who are subject to the repercussions of inaction. Ensuring high quality air, water, and food is an integral piece of the public health puzzle, and an intrinsic component to the longevity of all people in the area. The only way for this to be realized by the coal and oil industries is through public action from the masses, not just a select few who are well-informed. Thus, spreading the word and supporting the cause can be just as important as writing new legislation!Report

  9. personal injury October 6, 2012 8:12 am

    Pollutants can be classified as primary or secondary. Usually, primary pollutants are directly emitted from a process, such as ash from a volcanic eruption, the carbon monoxide gas from a motor vehicle exhaust or sulfur dioxide released from factories.Report


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