The Alabama Department of Public Health issues fish advisories for contaminants like methylmercury and PCBs — which are toxins hazardous to human health. ADPH also makes recommendations about portion size and frequency of fish consumed in specific waterbodies.
When our friends at Coosa Riverkeeper interviewed more than 125+ fishers, they found some startling results. Nearly half of the Coosa fishers didn’t know about the 34 fish advisories ADPH issues last year for polychlorinated biphynels (PCBs) and methylmercury — or how exposure to those pollutants affect their health.
In response, Coosa Riverkeeper released its new Fish Guide this week, which now includes a toll-free hotline that fishers can dial to find out about fish advisories throughout the state. Fishers can call 1-844-219-RISK and follow the prompts to hear advisories in their watershed.
Mercury is a potent neurotoxin that is emitted from coal-fired power plants like Alabama Power’s Gaston Plant located on the Coosa River in Wilsonville, Ala. It is converted by organisms in nearby water sources like streams and rivers into methylmercury, which is absorbed by fish. Infants and children under the age of 14 are the most at-risk. Women who are nursing, pregnant, or plan to become pregnant are also especially vulnerable.
“We saw a need for a better way to alert citizens of these advisories and were excited to tackle the challenge,” Executive Director Justinn Overton said. “We are confident our new toll-free hotline will be make these advisories more accessible and easier to understand for the hundreds of subsistence fishermen throughout the Coosa River and the entire state.”
In addition to the new hotline, Coosa Riverkeeper has also developed an interactive map with advisories as well as popular fishing locations along the Coosa. They also created two videos to compliment the Fish Guide. One demonstrates how to properly filet a fish — very useful info for folks like me who love to cook fresh food! The other video shows alternative cooking methods that help reduce exposure to the toxins found in these fish.
We urge you to use this resource from Coosa Riverkeeper and support their work! Air pollution does not happen in a vacuum — what goes up in the air can end up contaminating our soil, our water, and our food supply (like fish). That’s why we work so closely with local water groups. We’re all in this together!
On Monday, the Supreme Court of the United States denied certiorari in Michigan v. EPA. This means that SCOTUS rejected Michigan’s and 20 other states, including Alabama, appeal to block the mercury and air toxics standards (MATS). In denying review, SCOTUS upholds the D.C. Circuit’s decision to not vacate the rule.
Almost a year ago I wrote about the SCOTUS decision that resulted in EPA performing a cost analysis for the MATS rule. Because the rule was not invalidated or stayed, crucial protections for air quality and public health have remained in effect.
Image courtesy Moms Clean Air Force (source: http://www.momscleanairforce.org/how-mercury-poisoning-works)
Mercury is a potent neurotoxin that is emitted from coal-fired power plants. It is converted by organisms in nearby water sources like streams and rivers into methylmercury, which is absorbed by fish.
This is what leads to fish advisories like the ones published by the state of Alabama Department of Public Health and our friends at the Coosa Riverkeeper. It has even been linked to lower IQs and can have harmful health effects in children.
Thank you to everyone who told Attorney General Luther Strange to stop wasting taxpayer’s money opposing MATS! Today is a great day for air quality and public health!
Check out this helpful infographic on mercury pollution from Moms Clean Air Force.
In April, I wrote about the new Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) rule that had just gone into effect:
“Gasp strongly supports the MATS rule because it will be crucial in improving air quality and public health. Until recently, there were no national limits on emissions of mercury and other toxics from power plants. […] These toxic air pollutants are known or suspected of causing cancer and other serious health effects including premature death, heart attacks, bronchitis and asthma.”
On June 29, the United States Supreme Court ruled on whether it was “reasonable” for EPA to not consider costs when deciding to regulate mercury and air toxics emitted from power plants. In a 5-4 decision, with Justice Antonin Scalia authoring the majority opinion, the Supreme Court held that the EPA must consider costs before deciding a regulation is appropriate and necessary.
However, the holding was quite narrow: “we need not and do not hold that the law unambiguously required the Agency, when making this preliminary estimate, to conduct a formal cost-benefit analysis […] It will be up to the Agency to decide […] how to account for cost.”
Putting that decision into real world terms, the Supreme Court did not invalidate the MATS rule. They also gave very little guidance on how EPA is to determine costs; EPA has been given deference in how it will account for costs.
Now the MATS rule will go back to the D.C. Circuit Court for further consideration. The D.C. Circuit could invalidate or uphold the rule. Surprisingly, the Supreme Court gave very little insight into how this ruling will affect the Clean Power Plan and its opponents’ key legal arguments. Whether the D.C. Circuit upholds or invalidates the rule could have a direct impact on the future legal challenges to the Clean Power Plan (to be finalized later this summer).
Although the Supreme Court ruled more narrowly than they could have, I still find the arguments in Justice Elena Kagan’s dissenting opinion more persuasive. She correctly points out that it would have been very difficult, even impossible, for EPA to measure costs at the initial rulemaking stage. Justice Kagan also pointed out that the Supreme Court should have reviewed EPA’s regulatory process with caution and care. She correctly asserts that simply because judges might have made different regulatory choices it will not suffice to overturn EPA’s actions where Congress left such discretion up to the EPA.
I most agree with Justice Kagan when she says “the result is a decision that deprives [EPA] of the latitude Congress gave it to design an emissions-setting process sensibly accounting for costs and benefits alike. And the result is a decision that deprives the American public of the pollution control measures that [EPA], acting well within its delegated authority, found would save many, many more lives.”
Although the Supreme Court’s ruling on MATS was disappointing, the mercury regulations are still in place. Moreover, most power plants were forced into compliance when the rule took effect in April, which means the emissions control systems are already installed.
Some media reports have greatly overblown what the ruling means — some declaring it a lethal blow to the regulation of mercury and air toxics. This is simply not the case. It was not a “big win for Alabama Power” and the utilities industry, as the Birmingham Business Journal put it. The LA Times editorial board did a good job of explaining what the Supreme Court ruling did and, importantly, did not do.
It’s important to remember the local context and benefits of continuing to reduce emissions of mercury and air toxics. The Birmingham metro is home to about 1-in-5 Alabamians, as well as one of the nation’s largest mercury polluters: Alabama Power’s Gaston Plant in Shelby County.
How the D.C. Circuit Court rules on remand could affect legal challenges to the Clean Power Plan — which is expected to roll out later this year. This show is not over by any means. In fact, it may be just beginning.
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On December 16, 2011, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) signed a rule to reduce emissions of toxic air pollutants from power plants called the mercury and air toxics standards, or MATS. The aim is to reduce emissions from new and existing coal- and oil-fired electricity utility steam generating units.
Gasp strongly supports the MATS rule because it will be crucial in improving air quality and public health. Until recently, there were no national limits on emissions of mercury and other toxics from power plants.
In the U.S., power plants are responsible for 50 percent of mercury emissions and 77 percent of acid gas emissions. They’re also the leading source of other toxics such as arsenic, nickel, selenium and hexavalent chromium. These toxic air pollutants are known or suspected of causing cancer and other serious health effects including premature death, heart attacks, bronchitis and asthma.
Related: Report Highlights Health Risks from Neurotoxins
Although just recently finalized, Congress set the groundwork for MATS in 1990 when it passed the Clean Air Act Amendments. These amendments required EPA to regulate 189 hazardous air pollutants that were not previously controlled, including mercury. MATS will reduce the emissions of heavy metals. Existing sources generally have up to 4 years if they need to comply with MATS.
For all existing and new coal- and oil-fired electricity utility steam generating units, the MATS rule establishes a numerical emission limit for mercury, particulate matter (PM), and hydrochloric acid (HCI). Power plants may meet these emissions limits through wet and dry scrubbers, dry sorbent injection systems, activated carbon injection systems and fabric filters.
|Each year, MATS will prevent up to:
|11,000 premature deaths
|4,700 heart attacks
|130,000 asthma attacks
|5,700 hospital and emergency room visits
|540,000 missed days from work
The MATS rule will also improve the health of minority and low income populations, who shoulder a disproportionate burden of asthma and other debilitating health conditions related to environmental pollution.
Several key players in the electric utility industry, including Southern Company, oppose the MATS rule. Although the EPA has shown where the MATS rule will improve air quality and public health, challengers of the MATS rule are arguing about two words in the Clean Air Act: appropriate and necessary.
Last month, the Supreme Court of the United States heard oral arguments on this issue. The petitioners contend that EPA should have considered costs when limiting emissions and that the EPA misinterpreted the words “appropriate and necessary.” The justices are divided along predictable lines, with Justice Anthony Kennedy as the possible decisive vote.
According to an EPA cost-benefit analysis, while costs could reach $9.6 billion per year, the MATS rule — in tandem with the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule — could provide annual benefits of $150 billion to $380 billion.
The spirit of the Clean Air Act is in its name: clean air. The EPA is taking a positive and long-overdue step in the right direction by promulgating the MATS rule. EPA contends that the Clean Air Act requires the EPA to consider the cost of required pollution controls when determining the level at which emissions should be controlled, but it doesn’t instruct the agency to consider costs when deciding whether to regulate such plants.
Several utilities throughout the country are already implementing the emissions controls mandated by the MATS rule and argue that the utilities who are delaying compliance with the MATS rule until it takes effect have an unfair advantage. Not only is this a valid and compelling argument, but it also can be argued that the cost of compliance with the MATS rule — (reminder: the health-related benefits outweigh the costs!) — should not take precedent over the public’s health.
The MATS rule went into effect April 15, and the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule on the case in June. Here’s to hoping that the protection of our air and health that officially went into effect this month will continue in its same capacity after June.
The Atlantic today published a report titled “The Toxins That Threaten Our Brains” that immediately caught our eye. The article starts by citing 2012 research from Harvard’s Dr. David Bellinge, which found that Americans have lost 41 million IQ points due to exposure to neurotoxins. That’s a staggering number!
Last month, Philippe Grandjean (Harvard) and Philip Landrigan (Mount Sinai School of Medicine) created a stir when they published a report in the prestigious medical journal, Lancet Neurology. In it, they described a “silent pandemic” from toxins affecting the development of children.
The researchers identified 12 chemicals, such as mercury and arsenic, that were shown to have alarming effects on child development and health.
Image by Jackie Lay. Copyright © 2014 by The Atlantic Monthly Group.
Mercury in particular is of concern to us, because power plants like Alabama Power’s Ernest C. Gaston Electric Generating Plant (Shelby County) and James H. Miller, Jr. Electric Generating Plant in (Jefferson County) emit high quantities of mercury that ultimately it make their way into our lungs and drinking water. The Gaston Plant ranked second in the nation in mercury emissions in 2012, according to al.com. Miller previously took the top spot until the EPA sued Alabama Power to install pollution controls.
Image by Jackie Lay. Copyright © 2014 by The Atlantic Monthly Group.
And it’s not just our health and our children’s development that suffers from this pandemic, as the researchers put it. According to The Atlantic, “The combined current levels of pesticides, mercury, and lead cause IQ losses amounting to around $120 billion annually—or about three percent of the annual budget of the U.S. government.” (That figure is based on calculations by economist Elise Gould.)
In Alabama, a number of the communities we work with are low-income neighborhoods boxed in by polluters. So we were especially struck by one paragraph in particular:
“Low-income families are hit the hardest. No parent can avoid these toxins—they’re in our couches and in our air. They can’t be sweated out through hot yoga classes or cleansed with a juice fast. But to whatever extent these things can be avoided without better regulations, it costs money. Low-income parents might not have access to organic produce or be able to guarantee their children a low-lead household. When it comes to brain development, this puts low-income kids at even greater disadvantages—in their education, in their earnings, in their lifelong health and well-being.”
Read the full article by The Atlantic and let us know what you think. From our point of view, this research bolsters our point of view: Clean air is good for our health, our economy, and our environment.