Desperate Denial: Utility Pollution Apologists Deny Harms From Air Pollution or Health Benefits From Cleaning It Up
In choosing whether to enforce current law to dramatically reduce mercury, arsenic, lead and nearly one hundred other toxic air pollutants from power plants — or instead to retreat from these health safeguards —it comes down to this.
Do you believe doctors at the American Lung Association and American Academy of Pediatrics, EPA scientists, and dozens of peer-reviewed studies that power plants’ air pollution is very harmful and cleaning it up will deliver significant health benefits to all Americans, especially children?
Or do you believe the nation’s most heavily polluting utility company, Washington utility lobbyists and the “hypothesis” of a conservative Congressman that this pollution does not pose significant health risks and controlling the pollution will not deliver real benefits?
Incredibly, that’s how industry and political opponents of EPA’s mercury and air toxics standards are framing the health choice facing the country. That’s how they are framing the question of whether to carry out or kill legal standards that EPA projects will avoid [pdf] the following harms every year:
- Up to 17,000 premature deaths,
- 4,500 cases of chronic bronchitis,
- 11,000 nonfatal heart attacks,
- 12,200 hospital and emergency room visits,
- 11,000 cases of acute bronchitis,
- 220,000 cases of respiratory symptoms,
- 850,000 days when people miss work,
- 120,000 cases of aggravated asthma, and
- 5.1 million days when people must restrict their activities.
Now contrast these enormous benefits with the following three prominent examples of pollution denialism.
(1) Congressman Joe Barton (R-TX) announced at an April 15th Congressional hearing his “hypothesis” that exposure to air pollution from power plants such as particulate matter is not linked to premature death. Barton then asserted that EPA findings that reducing such pollution will avoid thousands of premature death every year “are pulled out of thin air.” Barton went so far as to dispute any “medical negatives” from air pollution such as mercury, sulfur dioxide and particulate matter.
Doctors from respected health associations such as the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Lung Association and the American Public Health Association immediately wrote [pdf] Barton to strongly reject his contentions. Indeed, Barton’s hypothesis and claims are so thoroughly wrong that the doctors’ letter began by openly declaring their “shock” over Barton’s statements. Their letter noted that:
The health impacts of short-term exposure (over hours to days) of particulate matter [have been] found to include: death from respiratory and cardiovascular causes, including strokes; increased risk of cardiovascular harm, including acute myocardial infarction (heart attacks) and congestive heart failure, especially among the elderly and in people with cardiovascular disease; inflammation of lung tissue in young, healthy adults; increased hospitalization for cardiovascular disease, including strokes; hospitalization for asthma among children; and aggravated asthma attacks in children.
The doctors’ letter concluded by listing 30 peer-reviewed studies establishing “a clear link between air pollution and a range of serious adverse human health effects.” Not surprisingly, Barton's office has failed to respond to the doctors.
(2) Utility industry lobbyists representing the Southern Company and the utility coalition, the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, have stated that there are “no incremental health benefits associated with [EPA’s mercury and air toxics standards].” These lobbyists have denied further that reducing power plants’ hazardous air pollution, including mercury, “actually does anything to protect public health.” The lobbyists even went so far as to dispute the association between premature deaths and particulate matter pollution.
Numerous medical organizations reject [pdf] these preposterous claims, including the American Lung Association, American Thoracic Society, American Public Health Association, the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, American Academy of Pediatrics and Physicians for Social Responsibility.
Moreover, the lobbyists’ bald contentions conflict with a substantial body of peer-reviewed scientific studies [pdf] that serve as the foundation for EPA’s extensive findings [pdf, chapters 5 & 6] of health hazards attributed to air pollution from power plants, especially deadly particulate matter.
The lobbyists’ claims are not backed by peer-reviewed studies and amount to scattershot rhetoric that is counter-factual and scientifically unsound, but rests on the tired hope of deniers that the claims will sow doubt that will grow with increasing applications of verbal fertilizer.
But falling into the “you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up” category, there is one fact that makes these lobbyists’ claims even more surreal. One of the two utility industry lobbyists in question is the former political appointee that headed the Bush EPA's air office, Jeff Holmstead. In that capacity, Holmstead delivered testimony before Congress at odds with his current denials on behalf of utility clients.
The left column of the following table quotes statements by Holmstead at a recent videotaped debate sponsored by the Environmental Law Institute. The right column quotes testimony by Holmstead and related EPA statements, both during his tenure as political head of the agency's air office.
2011 Statements by Holmstead, Representing Utility Companies
Statements by Holmstead or EPA When Holmstead Headed EPA’s Air Program, 2001-05.
“I don't believe that there are thousands of people who are dying because of exposure to these small [particles],” i.e. particulate matter.
Reducing power plants’ air pollution would result in “14,100 fewer premature deaths,” among other “significant health benefits,” “by dramatically reducing fine particle pollution caused by SO2 and NOx emissions.” May 2005 Congressional testimony by Mr. Holmstead.
EPA estimates that reducing power plants’ SO2 and NOx emissions by approximately 60% will deliver “particulate matter-related annual benefits” that include 13,000-17,000 fewer premature fatalities every year. 2005 Clean Air Interstate Rule Overseen by Mr. Holmstead.
“It is pretty hard to say that [mercury from coal-fired power plants] is a significant public health issue.”
"Mercury is a potent toxin that causes permanent damage to the brain and nervous system, particularly in developing fetuses, depending on the level of ingestion. Most exposure comes through eating contaminated fish. Currently 42 states have advisories warning people to limit or avoid intake of recreationally caught fish due to mercury contamination. Even so, almost 400,000 children are born each year to mothers whose blood mercury levels exceed the reference dose established by EPA, which builds in a margin of safety. Recent actions to reduce mercury emissions from medical waste incinerators and municipal waste combustors are significantly reducing emissions of mercury. In fact, full implementation and compliance with medical waste incinerator and municipal waste combustor regulations will result in significant mercury emission reductions from these important sources. Power generation is now the largest uncontrolled source of mercury emissions, contributing approximately 35% of the total anthropogenic mercury emissions in this country." May 2002 Congressional testimony by Mr. Holmstead.
(3) Finally, there are the following absurd statements on the website for the American Electric Power Company, one of the heaviest polluting utility companies in the country:
[S]ignificant bodies of scientific work, including previous conclusions by the EPA, indicate that particulate emissions from power plants are not a significant risk to public health. We believe that particulates generated from the transportation sector are a greater risk to public health.
The first quoted statement is sheer nonsense. There is no such significant body of scientific work, and for good reason the AEP claim is unaccompanied by any source citation.
Moreover, there are no "previous conclusions by the EPA" that support the AEP claim; EPA conclusions about the severe risks from power plants’ particulate matter directly contradict the AEP claims. And when I asked several EPA officials what AEP possibly could be talking about in making this startling claim about "previous conclusions by EPA," the agency officials had no idea. (It's also noteworthy that the AEP claim is contradicted by the Bush EPA's consistent findings [pdf, chapters 1 & 4] that power plant air pollution is deadly and responsible for a litany of health hazards.)
When I questioned a group of AEP officials about the basis for the first statement above, one of the officials responded with the name of a single study. And it turns out that study does not even support the claim on the AEP website; indeed, the study authors have corrected and chastised utility industry lobbyists previously for distorting the study’s conclusions:
Scientists involved in a major Atlanta-area study on the health effects of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) pollution say the utility group funding the research is "inappropriately" interpreting its initial data as evidence that power plant emissions have a negligible impact on cardiovascular health, when compared to other PM2.5 sources such as mobile source emissions. ....
A second scientist, who was involved in an independent review of [the study], adds, "The problem is not so much the study, as how it is being misinterpreted by utility [representatives] as saying that utility pollution is not bad for your health. I and the ARIES study scientists I've spoken to don't believe that is an appropriate interpretation of the results.
Scientists Accuse Industry of Manipulating Major PM2.5 Study Findings, InsideEPA, Jan. 7, 2005 (subscription required).
So why are we now hearing these outlandish denials that mercury, particulate matter and other toxic air pollution are harmful to Americans’ health? Why all the disavowals that cleaning up this pollution will deliver tremendous health benefits – saving lives, avoiding heart attacks and asthma attacks, and avoiding brain poisoning and developmental damages to the unborn?
Barton actually supplied the answer to those questions at the April 15th hearing [pdf]:
[T]he entire premise for going forward with these standards is that you get such a tremendous ratio of benefits to cost because they claim, according to Mr. Walke’s testimony, which he is an honest man and he has got it from somewhere, is $140 billion annually. But if you really don’t have the benefit because you are not having the medical negative, but you really have the cost – and if you don’t think the costs are real, just look at how many factories are closing and going to Mexico and China.
Barton recognizes the benefits of EPA's mercury and air toxics standards are so overwhelming that the only way for polluting utility companies to avoid their responsibility for cleaning up that pollution is to pretend the benefits don't exist. To pretend that power plants' air pollution is not harmful. To deny that cleaning up that air pollution will deliver significant, cost-effective health benefits to Americans.
Opponents of EPA's mercury and air toxics standards understand that Americans are sensible and moral people. Americans realize air pollution is harmful and agree that polluters have a legal and moral responsibility to clean it up. The American people support enforcing the law to deliver the resulting clean air benefits to all of us.
All too often, the losing side in political debates in Washington resort to obfuscation and worse, flatly denying the facts when facts are not on their side — to the point of rejecting substantial bodies of peer-reviewed science.
The debate over EPA's mercury and air toxics standards is no different.
So it comes down to this. Do you believe doctors, scientific facts and common sense, or the desperate purveyors of denial?
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