Clean Air At Last: The EPA Cracks Down on Coal Pollution

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During his career as a running back for the Pittsburgh Steelers, Jerome Bettis made a habit of running over opponents—that’s why they called him “the Bus.” Now the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is hoping that Bettis can handle conservative lawmakers the way he used to brush aside opposing linebackers. Bettis was in Washington on Thursday to meet with EPA head Lisa Jackson and to film a public service announcement about the need for new rules that will limit emissions of mercury and other toxics from power plants. Bettis—who was diagnosed with asthma at age 15—told POLITICO that Jackson was grateful for his work:

She wanted to thank me for the support that I’m lending to this issue. She said this is a very important issue, and it’s going to meet some resistance.

Jackson’s right. The mercury rule has been in the works for two decades, and year after year the power industry has managed to stave off implementation. But on Friday—under a court order—the EPA is expected to finally issue new regulations that will require power plants to reduce emissions of mercury and other toxics within the next three years. The utility industry is already fighting back, claiming that the rules will destroy jobs, raise electricity prices and even lead to blackouts—so Jackson knows she has a fight on her hands.

Mercury is a neurotoxin—one that’s especially dangerous to children—and trace amounts of it can be found in some forms of coal, especially from the West. When that coal is burned, the mercury is released into the air, where it can attack us directly, or wind its way up the food chain, often through fish. (Concerns about mercury levels is one reason that pregnant women are often advised to avoid sushi and other seafood.) The EPA has been looking at regulating mercury since the Clean Air Amendments of 1990 were passed—with remarkably bipartisan support—but the agency dragged its feet, issuing its first study in 1998 and the first attempt at regulations under former President George W. Bush in 2005. But those rules were considered so lax that a federal court threw them out and ordered the agency to come up with something more stringent. Now—seven years later—the EPA is on the brink of doing just that.

The new rules are expected to be similar to draft regulations the EPA first announced early this year, and would require mercury reductions beginning in 2014, giving industry about three years to comply. (Although 2014 will be 24 years after the EPA was first directed to investigate the risks of mercury pollution.) Like any regulation, it will have benefits—and it will have costs too. The EPA says that the new rules could have public health benefits ranging from $53 to $140 billion, while imposing costs of $11 billion. That means benefits to all of us—again, especially vulnerable children—for every $5 to $14 dollars industry is forced to spend cleaning up.

The power plant industry—with coal plants being hardest hit by the new rules—isn’t happy, claiming that the new rules could cost far more than the EPA has predicted, with vast increases in energy and the potential for rolling blackouts. As Evan Tracey of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity—a power industry trade group—said recently:

EPA’s proposal would kick the economy when it’s down. Utility MACT is the most expensive rule ever written for power plants and will make it even more difficult for families, businesses and industry to recover in these rough economic times. The EPA’s heavy-handed Utility MACT rule must be fixed by the President before our hope of economic recovery is dimmed further. If the President won’t fix the rule, we hope Congress will step in and pass legislation that achieves environmental results without wrecking the economy.

Is that true? The EPA has tangled with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) over the impact that the new rules will have on electricity reliability, with some FERC staff worrying that the MACT rule will push too many coal plants into retirement, imperiling the utility service. That’s an argument that coal-dominated utilities like American Electric and Southern Company have made as well, as they ask for more time to adjust to the new rules. But the power industry has known for years that these mercury regulations were on their way, and many utilities are on record saying they’re already prepared. What no one can doubt is that cutting back on mercury will be a boon for public health—and will even help the climate by pushing out older, polluting coal plants. The Bus is right—it’s time to do something about mercury.

Bryan Walsh is a senior writer at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bryanrwalsh. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME