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Ellis-Lamkins: Mercury Safeguards Are a Necessary Regulation

Regulation. It’s become a dirty word in Washington, D.C. Why? In large part because industry fears the kind of regulations that are designed to stop the dumping of dangerous chemicals into our air and water.

It may not be popular, but I’m going to say it: We need regulations.

Regulations are what keep drunken drivers off our roads. They’re what keep cigarettes out of our kids’ mouths. They’re the safety net that ensures the recklessness of one individual or industry doesn’t saddle the rest of us with disease and injury.

That’s exactly the kind of safety net that the Environmental Protection Agency’s Mercury and Air Toxics Standards would provide. The goal of these standards is to keep dangerous chemicals out of the air that we breathe and the water that we drink. Pretty basic.

The standards would require our nation’s biggest polluters — coal plants — to scale back on the staggering amount of chemicals they pump into our air and water. Mercury is among the worst of these. It poisons pregnant women, impairing fetal development and causing birth defects. Coal plants emit a whopping 48 tons of mercury each year. Just one gram of mercury can contaminate a 20-acre lake, making it too dangerous to eat its fish.

And poor people and communities of color bear the brunt. Because they’re most likely to live near coal plants, they suffer disproportionate rates of asthma, heart disease and early death. I know this all too well — I grew up in a poor, polluted community and struggled with childhood asthma as a result.

I wasn’t alone. Too many Americans are suffering as a result of unchecked pollution. According to the EPA, the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards will prevent nearly 4,700 heart attacks and 11,000 premature deaths per year. The illnesses caused by these plants are completely avoidable. We just need the political will to enact basic common-sense safeguards — yes, regulations — that will protect all of us, especially kids and people of color.

That’s why Green for All and the NAACP are working together to make sure these safeguards make it over the finish line. And while the standards are in effect today, Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) is leading the charge to roll them back and rallying his fellow Senators to join him.

These standards were not designed to put coal plants out of business. They just require our most polluting energy industry to take basic steps to reduce the chemicals they dump into our communities.

These safeguards will actually create new manufacturing and engineering jobs that don’t exist today. The protections would put roughly 46,000 Americans to work installing and creating pollution controls. Meanwhile, America’s clean energy technology innovation will continue to flourish.

Beyond creating jobs and saving lives, the standards would help the country slash spending on health care. The money invested in improving air quality will save $37 billion to $90 billion a year in pollution-related health care costs. The less mercury, arsenic and lead that coal plants produce, the less we will have to spend on treatment for respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses caused by exposure to these deadly pollutants.

Together with the NAACP, I’m calling on our leaders in Congress to continue to stand up for our nation’s children and people of color and do the right thing: Defend the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards and make big polluters clean up their acts.

Cutting coal pollution and investing in America’s flourishing clean energy economy will create a healthier, more prosperous world for all of us. If you ask me, that’s the kind of regulation we want to see.

Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins is the CEO of Green for All.

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