Commentary written by Deborah Payne for the Courier-Journal, find the original version here.
Ask any parent of an asthmatic child waiting for treatment in an emergency room whether or not they've worried about the expense and they will likely tell you it's a hit to the family budget. With as many as 1 in 7 Kentucky kids suffering from asthma, our citizens spend millions of dollars annually to treat the condition, largely triggered by poor air quality.
This expense, however, weighed little in the mind of Judge Scalia in this week's Supreme Court decision to remand the EPA's mercury and air toxins rule, a decision that basically throws the rule back to the DC District Court to address more financial considerations. The rule is not withdrawn and will likely be fully implemented once EPA submits more numbers estimating financial impacts on industry. But the big picture here is that the court got stuck on money — not money related to health costs, but money related to industry, a priority that fails to put citizens first.
Most coal plants are already well on their way to achieving the goals of the rule. We can now say the assertion that the restrictions on power plants would cause financial ruin and lead to blackouts just isn't true. Our utilities have figured out how to navigate the changes over the course of the past four years, and, in the end, we're already experiencing some of the benefits of the standards.
The reality is that this decision is just one more volley in a game that started almost 25 years ago.
Clean Air Act amendments from 1990, when George H.W. Bush was president, required the EPA to determine if there was a health concern related to emissions from power plants. In 2000 when President Clinton was in office, EPA declared that the evidence was overwhelming.
This started the process of creating a rule to reduce levels of mercury and other air toxins, pollution that can cause asthma attacks, heart attacks, stroke and developmental delays. A final rule wasn't put in place for another 11 years. By 2011, more than 20 years after the whole process started, a set of standards was finally created that gave power companies four years to clean things up.
This was an important decision, particularly for Kentucky, where more than 90 percent of our power comes from coal and poor air quality is a reality. We have the most to gain from this rule. We have some of the highest rates of asthma, heart, and lung disease in the country, health problems that are highly impacted by poor air quality. And that's not cheap.
While Judge Scalia thought it wasn't rational "to impose billions of dollars in economic costs in return for a few dollars in health and environmental benefits," he failed to note the already established estimates. Judge Elena Kagan, however, got it right in her dissent when she noted, "EPA conducted a formal cost-benefit study which found that the quantifiable benefits of its regulation would exceed the costs up to nine times over—by as much as $80 billion each year."
The financial benefits of the clean power plan have been established and are tremendous, slashing toxic emissions to prevent as many as 11,000 premature deaths, 4,700 heart attacks, and 130,000 asthma attacks each year across the nation. With the rule, 210 lives of Kentuckians would be saved, and an additional $1.8 million in health benefits would be experienced annually.
Sen. Mitch McConnell will say that this decision will serve as a strike against implementing the EPA's Clean Power Plan, a set of standards designed to reduce carbon pollution that affects climate change. The reality is that this decision creates no precedent for other clean air act rules. The legal review of the two rules falls into completely different categories.
Fighting about coal, money and power is standard fare for Kentucky. It's really a one-trick pony that decides "who's in" and "who's out" for Kentucky's politicians. And, like coal, it's getting old. It's about time that we take the blinders off and start focusing on what's really important: protecting our kids from polluted air; and the developing brains of our infants from mercury poisoning. This is the investment that Kentucky really needs to make. In the end, we'll have a much healthier Kentucky and save millions while we're at it.
Deborah Payne is health coordinator for the Kentucky Environmental Foundation.
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