Statement Of Senator Patrick Leahy On The EPA’s Mercury and Air Toxics Standards Rule

The Senate will vote today on whether to proceed to a Congressional Resolution of Disapproval that I strongly oppose.  This resolution would repeal the Environmental Protection Agency’s Mercury and Air Toxics Standards Rule and undo the great strides that the agency has taken to safeguard the public’s health and welfare and our quality of life in this great land.

The EPA’s Mercury and Air Toxics Standards represent a true breakthrough in environmental policy.  This rule offers clear benefits to every American, and it is especially important to Vermonters, who disproportionally suffer from the devastating effects of mercury and other toxic air pollutants.  Although my home state has no major sources of mercury, Vermonters have been besieged by this insidious poison, which drifts across our borders from other states. 

The EPA estimates that each year, toxic air pollutants cause up to 11,000 premature deaths, 4,700 heart attacks, and 130,000 cases of childhood asthma, among other illnesses.  Mercury, a truly unwelcome addition to our daily lives, has had catastrophic effects on the health and well-being of all Americans, as well as a ruinous impact on our Nation’s pristine natural environment.  There is no known safe level of exposure to mercury – it is harmful to humans in even the smallest amounts.  Tragically, mercury’s most devastating effect is on those victims least able to protect themselves: unborn and newborn children.  Mercury has been shown to cause developmental disabilities and brain damage, resulting in lowered IQ’s and learning problems, such as attention deficit disorder.  Sadly, these affects are permanent and irreversible.  They lead to a lifetime of trips to the emergency room, costly medical interventions, personal and family heartbreak, and lost potential. 

The American people want their air and water to be cleaner and healthier and most certainly free of toxic pollutants.  Vermonters and Americans want this for all of us.  Safe water and safe air to breathe should be a valued legacy of our lives in this blessed Nation.  We also know that protecting the weakest and most vulnerable members of our society is among Congress’s most solemn duties.  This resolution of disapproval undermines that goal.  Why should one more child struggle to breathe and gasp for air when such suffering is preventable?  Why should one more parent die a premature death?  Congress should not meddle in this vitally important issue – literally, for many, an issue of life or death or chronic illness.  If the EPA’s Mercury and Air Toxics Standards are repealed, the simple reality is that it will be somebody’s loved one who pays the price, and the price they pay may be irreversible. 

During the Bush administration, I offered my own Congressional Review Act joint resolution of disapproval, known as the Leahy-Collins resolution, to contest an EPA mercury rule that was far too weak and failed to protect the American people.  It is hard to believe that now, almost seven years later, this issue is still unresolved, and we are fighting to save an EPA rule that is fair, just, science-based, and reasonable.  A sound environmental policy that protects our citizens from the hazards of mercury and air toxics is long overdue.

In addition to the numerous health benefits that removing these toxics would mean for our citizens, both young and old, the EPA’s Mercury and Air Toxics Standards would protect America’s precious waterways, making them accessible to the sport fishermen of today and for countless generations to come.  Today, large game fish from every body of water in Vermont, including our state’s greatest lake, Lake Champlain, are so heavily contaminated with out-of-state mercury that people must be warned against eating them.  In fact, all 50 states have issued fish consumption advisories, warning citizens to limit how often they eat certain types of fish because they are contaminated with mercury.  Let me repeat that: because of mercury contamination, every state of our great Nation today warns its citizens to limit how often they should consume certain kinds of fish.  We can change that.  We should change that.  We must change that.  Environmental standards can and have made tremendous differences in our lifetimes in virtually eliminating such toxics as the fumes from the burning of leaded gasoline, which only recently was ubiquitous on our streets and around our homes.  We must do the same to begin ridding poisonous mercury from our air and water.     

Without these standards, power plants will continue to spew tons of mercury and other toxic air pollutants into the air.  Without these standards, this preventable slow-motion tragedy will continue to unfold despite the fact that the pollution control technology mandated by this rule is already widely available, affordable, and in use in many coal-fired power plants throughout the Nation.  Thirty-three percent of older power plants have already installed life-saving technology which allows them to comply with the EPA’s emission limits, and a full sixty percent already comply with the EPA’s mercury limit.  This resolution of disapproval would be especially ill-advised because it would unjustly punish companies that have taken steps to do the right thing, while rewarding those that have shirked their responsibilities, endangered countless lives and imperiled the environment. 

As another great benefit to the American people, industry-wide adoption of innovative pollution control technology would stimulate investment in the economy, job creation and greater productivity.  The updated standards will create thousands of long-term jobs for American workers.  These workers will be hired to build, install, and, ultimately, operate the machinery that will reduce health-threatening emissions.  The EPA estimates that implementing this rule will mean jobs for tens of thousands of hard-working Americans, including 46,000 construction jobs and 8,000 long-term utility jobs.  When added onto the health benefits, these standards will have an annual estimated benefit of $37 to $90 billion dollars.  Green jobs are not just good for the environment in which we live, work and breathe; they are good for the economy and good for America. 

I hope that when Senators consider this resolution of disapproval, they remember that its passage would prevent the EPA from issuing any standards in the future that were substantially similar to the current Mercury and Air Toxics Standards.  As a result, Americans would continue to be put at risk from the debilitating and sometimes deadly effects of air pollution pumped into America’s air by energy companies and other sources.  Regrettably, this threat to human health and the environment would continue indefinitely, because the resolution of disapproval would strip the EPA of essential tools to address these hazards. 

The value of these tools is as incalculable as the value of human life and the health of our families.  Make no mistake about it:  Investing in the new technology mandated by the EPA’s Mercury and Air Toxics Standards will save countless lives and will improve the quality of the environment of our communities for years to come.  We owe it to ourselves and we owe it to future generations of Americans to make this investment now.

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