New for 2012: Cleaner air

Whether casting a line in a Maryland stream or a lake in the most remote reaches of this country, a fisherman would be hard-pressed to catch a fish that does not contain mercury. Indeed, most recent studies suggest that it might be impossible.

Is this a new development? Not really. It's been true for years, and states post warnings — most often directed at children and pregnant or nursing women — to limit their intake of fish for this very reason. A lot of saltwater fish (particularly those that prey on other fish, like shark and swordfish) carry similar health warnings.


Where does all the mercury come from? By far, the greatest man-made source is from the burning of coal by power plants. The mercury is released into the air, settles on the ground and water, and is carried into streams and lakes. There, it is taken up by plants and small organisms that are, in turn, eaten by fish, and the mercury is concentrated through the food chain.

The effects? Potentially severe mental disabilities in developing human fetuses. But it can have adverse neurological impacts on adults, too.

Late last month, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued regulations to reduce air pollution from power plants. To suggest the new rules governing mercury and other toxic chemical emissions were overdue is a tremendous understatement — the agency was first given authority to address the problem in 1990, but it has taken much lobbying and litigation for action to be taken.

Maryland-based power plants will be little affected by the new rules. The state had already required cleaner emissions from its electricity producers under a law approved more than a half-decade ago. But it is still good news for Maryland residents, as airborne pollution does not stop at state lines and cleaner air is expected to yield billions of dollars in health benefits nationwide.

Make no mistake, there will be real consequences for the power industry and to ratepayers in certain parts of the country. While plants like Brandon Shores in northern Anne Arundel County have already been upgraded with pollution controls (at a cost of $885 million) and many others will now be as well, there are other power plants across the country that will have to be retired — the investment required is too great to make sense economically.

And with those aging facilities will go some jobs, not only at the power plants but in the mining industry. But that isn't the whole story. As coal-fired generation recedes (at a projected and relatively modest 4 percent per year), other technologies are emerging to take its place — fueled by nuclear energy, natural gas and renewable forms of power like solar and wind. With them come new jobs and new opportunities for growth.

That's a transformation that was delayed by the two-decade-long struggle to adopt airborne mercury pollution limits. How much harm has that delay done to human health? It's impossible to calculate with any certainty, but the EPA estimates the new rules will prevent 17,000 premature deaths per year, while the effects of improved health and related benefits could run as high as $140 billion annually.

Yet there are those in Congress and elsewhere who will no doubt try to scare the public into believing that power plant emissions are not all that toxic, or the cost of reducing them is too high, or that retiring power plants will lead to shortages and brownouts. They will paint them with the same broad brush used to discourage all government regulations — "bureaucratic," "anti-business" and "environmentally extreme."


Such fears over power shortages and job losses are greatly over-hyped by the industry and its supporters desperate to maintain the profitable status quo. Others would just like to cast President Barack Obama as an enemy of private sector jobs (and never mind that many in the power industry, including Maryland's Constellation Energy Group, support the EPA rules).

The facts are that today, it's estimated that one in six women have enough mercury in their bodies to put a baby at risk. That's not theoretical; that's what peer-reviewed scientific studies have found. And we don't believe most Americans would accept the premise that the nation's economy depends on poisoning the next generation.

The Obama administration made the right call. Let's hope the White House will continue the trend and seriously weigh public health and environmental costs in that other major energy decision, the future of the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada, which is now on a 60-day clock.