Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) Part II: Air Pollution Victims

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Senator Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) called air pollution victims “unidentified and imaginary” (Browning).  In reality, air pollution victims are quite real.

Coal combustion in the nation releases approximately 48 tons of mercury each year.  Mercury is a neurotoxin causing mental retardation and lost productivity (in terms of IQ decline).  According to Trasande et. al, direct costs of mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants is estimated at $361.2 million from mental retardation and $1.625 billion from lost productivity (Epstein 87).  One study estimates that for each part per million of mercury found in a mother’s hair, her child loses approximately 0.18 IQ points (Hudson).  Methylmercury, mercury’s most toxic form, is bioaccumulated in fin and shell-fish and then consumed by humans.  Methylmercury, either through diet or in utero through maternal consumption, is associated with neurological effects in infants and children.  These effects being delayed achievement of developmental milestones and poor results on neurobehavorial tests like, attention, fine motor function, language, visual-spatial abilities, and memory (Epstein 87).

Air pollution victims have been identified most often as communities of low income and/or color, therefore causing MATS regulations to encompass environmental justice and environmental racism.  Environmental justice has been defined as “the right of all people to share equally in the benefits bestowed by a healthy environment,” environment being where people “live, work, play and worship.”  There is a disproportionate incidence of environmental contamination in communities of low income and/or color.  Environmental justice movements look to correct this occurrence and secure the right for all people to live unthreatened by risks posed from environmental degradation and contamination.  Environmental justice perfectly depicts the intersection between ecological and social justice concerns.  When speaking specifically related to race, environmental racism applies.  Reverend Benjamin Chavis, past Executive Director of United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice (UCC-CRJ) coined the term “environmental racism” and defined it as “ racial discrimination in the environmental policy-making and the enforcement regulations and laws, the deliberate targeting of people of color communities for toxic waste facilities, the official sanctioning of the life-threatening presence of poisons and pollutants in our communities, and history of excluding people of color from leadership in the environmental movement” (Adamson, et al.).

Mercury and other air pollutants affect African American populations at an overwhelmingly higher rate than white populations.  In 2008, African Americans had a 35% rate of asthma than Caucasians.  One-quarter of the children in New York City’s Harlem have asthma. African American children have a 260% higher emergency room visit rate, 250% higher hospitalization rate and 500% higher death rate from asthma, compared with white children.  The most logical rational for the air pollution assault on Black communities is tied to where they live.  Sixty-eight percent of African-Americans (compared to 56% of whites) live within 30 miles (distance of maximum adverse effects from smokestack emissions) of a coal-fired power plant (Browning).

No matter the race, mothers and mothers-to-be across the nation are joining forces to ensure that their children are not air pollution victims.  Mothers and women of “childbearing age” are focused on a clean environment because it directly impacts the health of their children.  Mothers are a force to be reckoned with in the environmental arena.  Big Industry will respond to mothers on toxic chemical exposure because it has to (Jenkins).  Through the use of social media and emerging information technologies, large coalitions of concerned mothers are forming and taking a stand for the environment.  The blog Hip Moms Go Green is “the hip moms guide to living and eating green” (http://www.hipmomsgogreen.com/).  These hip moms are “dedicated to empowering you to simultaneously affect a healthful difference in the lives of your children and planet.”  The website boasts of green home improvement tips, creative ways to get children involved in environmental and social responsibility, and incorporating nutrient-dense foods into any family’s diet.  Hip Moms Go Green “bring all of your favorite eco-topics and products to the table to make going green part of your everyday life.”

Sources:

“Going Green – The Hip Moms Guide to Living and Eating Green by Hip Moms Go Green.” Going Green – The Hip Moms Guide to Living and Eating Green by Hip Moms Go Green. Web. 15 May 2012. <http://www.hipmomsgogreen.com/&gt;.

Jenkins, McKay. What’s Gotten into Us?: Staying Healthy in a Toxic World. New York: Random House, 2011. Print.

Adamson, Joni, Mei Mei. Evans, and Rachel Stein. The Environmental Justice Reader: Politics, Poetics & Pedagogy. Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona, 2002. Print.

Browning, Dominique. “The Racial Politics of Asthma.” TIME.com. 29 Mar. 2012. Web. 15 May 2012. <http://ideas.time.com/2012/03/29/the-racial-politics-of-asthma/&gt;.

Epstein, Paul R., Jonathan J. Buonocore, Kevin Eckerle, Michael Hendryx, Benjamin M. Stout III, Richard Heinberg, Richard W. Clapp, Beverly May, Nancy L. Reinhart, Melissa M. Ahern, Samir K. Doshi, and Leslie Glustrom. “Full Cost Accounting for the Life Cycle of Coal.” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1219.1 (2011): 73-98. Print.

Adamson, Joni, Mei Mei. Evans, and Rachel Stein. The Environmental Justice Reader: Politics, Poetics & Pedagogy. Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona, 2002. Print.

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Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) Series Part I: Overview

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Environmental policies are systemically intertwined with science, politics, economics and history.  Effective environmental policies improve public health, environmental justice concerns and take flora and fauna into consideration.  Beyond law and regulation, there is a feedback loop between environmental policy and environmental advocacy.  Advocates may push for new legislation or new legislation may empower advocates.  In 2011, through a combination of advocacy and political will, Mercury and Air Toxics Standards were developed and implemented.  Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) are the first federal standards that require power plants to limit their emissions of toxic air pollutants like mercury, arsenic and other heavy metals (“Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) for Power Plants”).  MATS can serve as a lens to view contemporary issues with environmental policy in the United States.

The new MATS policy shares systematic features of other environmental policies, with complex ties to economics, politics and history, but has a distinguishing feature that makes it a stand alone, necessary piece of environmental legislation.  Beyond the generic issues with environmental policy, MATS are eminent because of their clear connection to public health.  The scientific connection between air pollution and health conditions like asthma is firm and widely accepted.  There is scientific certainty that people will lose their lives if MATS are not implemented.  The public health component of MATS sets it apart from other environmental policies because mothers and women of childbearing age stand behind MATS to protect the health of their children.

Infants and children are not old enough to consent to the risk of air pollution, so a lobby of strong mothers speaks for them.  When these children grew, they should not believe that they have consented to lesser health and the mothers are there to prevent that from happening.  While other environmental policies may examine the costs and benefits of implementation of the regulation by monetization, substituting the value of the life of a child for however many tons of air pollution does not sit well with the general public.  Children cannot relate to an amount of money being equlivalent to their time spent outside, therefore contributing to their risk of air pollution.  Although MATS fit the mold of generic issues with environmental policy, they are distinguished as necessary regulation because of the problems with substituting monetary values for children’s health.

MATS mark the first time that United States coal and oil-fired power plant operators are required to limit emissions of mercury and other air pollutants.  There are federal limits on mercury emissions from waste incinerators and other sources, but until 2012, there had been no limits on coal-fired power plants, the single largest source of mercury emissions, according to the EPA.  The agency received more than 900,000 comments from industry and the general public to help decide what the standard should be (Hudson).  The emission standards are federal air pollution limits that individual facilities must meet by a set date.  For existing facilities, EPA must set emissions standards that are at least as stringent as the emission reductions achieved by the average of the top 12 percent of best controlled facilities (“Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) for Power Plants”).

The Clean Air Act of 1990 signed by President George H.W. Bush called for the EPA to conduct studies to determine whether regulating mercury and other air pollutants from power plants was “appropriate and necessary.”  The EPA found that it was, in fact, “appropriate and necessary” to regulate air pollution emissions from power plants.  Under the George W. Bush administration, the EPA reversed its decision and deemed power plants unregulated.  The George W. Bush-era EPA instead proposed a cap-and-trade system for mercury emissions.  Emissions were not restricted, but polluters would pay a fee that was given to companies whose power plants polluted less (“Regulatory Actions”).

Though the EPA has moved away from George W. Bush-like environmental policies, there is still a potential for MATS to be gutted and for power plants to be granted exemptions from the rule.  Under MATS, power plant operators have three years to comply with the new standards, but they may be granted additional time to install the necessary technologies if they are able to show a “valid need.”  It should be interesting to see how many power plants comply within the first three years as the law states and how many are given extra time due to various “valid needs” (Hudson).

Sources:

“Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) for Power Plants.” EPA. Environmental Protection Agency, 10 Apr. 2012. Web. 15 May 2012. <http://www.epa.gov/mats/basic.html&gt;.

Hudson, William. “Protecting Babies from Neurotoxins – CNN.com.” CNN. Cable News Network, 03 Jan. 2012. Web. 15 May 2012. <http://www.cnn.com/2011/12/29/health/protecting-babies-neurotoxins/index.html&gt;.

“Regulatory Actions | Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) for Power Plants.” EPA. Environmental Protection Agency, 10 Apr. 2012. Web. 15 May 2012. <http://www.epa.gov/mats/actions.html&gt;.

Effects of Mountaintop Removal on Appalachian Wildlife

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Changes to the water, air and land in coal country have caused trouble for vast amounts of biodiversity in the region.  The biodiversity of the Appalachian headwater streams is second only to the tropics.  The southern Appalachian mountains are home to the greatest diversity of salamanders on the globe, accounting for 18% of the known species worldwide.

Salamanders and other herptiles, birds, and mammals have all been struggling to adapt to the changing environmental conditions caused by mountaintop removal (MTR) coal mining in the Appalachian region. Salamanders become significantly less common in areas with many MTR sites.  When the forests are clear cut for MTR coal mining, the woodlands are converted into grasslands.  Grasslands do not provide salamanders with loose soil and a lot of ground cover, habitat characteristics required for their survival.  The conversion of woodlands to grasslands has also affected bird populations in Appalachian.  West Virginia is home to native woodland bird species like the Red-Shouldered Hawk and the Broad-winged Hawk, but as the number of intact forests decline, so do the number of native hawks.  Since the expansion of MTR coal mining, native hawks have been outnumbered by an increase in open-country species like the Northern Harrier and the American Kestrel.  A 2003 study showed an increase in other grassland bird species like Grasshopper Sparrows, Eastern Meadowlarks, Horned Larks and Savannah Sparrows.  The increase in Grasshopper Sparrows was explained by the fact that it colonizes most successfully in grassland habitats.  Unlike Grasshopper Sparrows, interior forest songbird species native to the Appalachian region require a large amount of intact forest to survive, something not found in areas with MTR sites.  MTR sites are affecting the survival rate of salamanders, native hawks and songbirds and mammals through the conversion of lush forest to clear cut grassland.

Mammals are deeply affected by the expansion of grassland areas in Appalchia due to the vast amount of reclaimed MTR coal mining sites in the region.  A 2002 study of small mammal communities on reclaimed MTR sites showed that while small mammals can continue to thrive, species from the Peromyscus family—types of rodents that frequently make their homes in grasslands—are most abundant.  Other mammals lose “traditional migration routes, travel corridors, and food sources” on reclaimed MTR sites.  Reclaimed MTR sites make it difficult for native woodland species to thrive.  According to EPA’s Fine Particle Emission Information System (FPEIS) study, deforestation and forest fragmentation from MTR coal mining disrupt the Appalachian forest and are harmful to forest-dwelling wildlife species.  Wildlife species like, Eastern chipmunks, Woodland Jumping Mice, Woodland Voles, and Northern Short-tailed Shrew showed significant populations decrease once their wooded habitat was transformed into grasslands.  Grassland transformation harms West Virginia’s state animal, the Black Bear, too.  As MTR coal mining displaces bears from their forest home, they need to find another place to live.  This leads to the now-frequent occurrence of bears in residential neighborhoods looking for shelter and food in garbage cans.  The residents are put in danger and the bears are most often put to death, leading to dramatic declines in population.  It is time for stronger environmental legislation that will allow for economic expansion in Appalachia, while protecting native and the species that inhabit them.

Sources:

Burns, Shirley Stewart (2007), Bringing Down the Mountains: The Impact of Mountaintop Removal on Southern West Virginia Communities, University of West Virginia Press, Morgantown.

Epstein, Paul R, et al. (2011), Full cost accounting for the life cycle of coal, Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1219: 73-98.

Mountaintop Removal in Appalachia

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The Appalachian region of the United States, extending from southern New York to northern Mississippi, is home to more than 25 million people in 420 counties across 13 states.  The majority of the Appalachian population is poor whites dispersed over large rural areas.  The Appalachian economy is extremely reliant on mountaintop removal (MTR) mining, despite the low amount of jobs it produces.

Strip mining is approximately 2.66 times more productive than underground mining, in terms of short tons produced per miner-hour.  Historically, as coal production increased from 1973-2006, the number of employees in the mines increased dramatically from 1973 to 1979 and great economic prosperity was brought to the land.  The levels than began to plummet below the 1973 employment point.  Between 1985 and 2005, employment in the Appalachia mining industry dropped by 56% due to increases in mechanization.  Currently, there are only 6,300 MTR and surface mining jobs left in West Virginia specifically.

The first MTR project in the United States was established in 1970 at Bullpush Mountain, West Virginia.  Until the mid 1990’s, MTR remained a small source of coal in the United States.  It is now the major form of mining in West Virginia and Kentucky (the second and third largest coal-producing states, after Wyoming) and is also practiced in Virginia and Tennessee. Technological innovation, globalization and the rise in natural resource depletion have all contributed to the increase in MTR coal mines.  The Clean Air Act amendments of 1990 also had a large impact on mining in Kentucky, West Virginia, Tennessee and Virginia.  These amendments encouraged companies to seek low-sulfur coal, abundant in central Appalachia.  MTR mining uses explosives to blast away the tops of mountains in order to access all of the coal within the mountain.  MTR has been completed on about 500 sites, altering some 1.4 million acres and burying 2,000 miles of headwater streams of water resources.

The MTR strip mining process involves the initial stage of exploration followed by an extraction stage.  Boreholes are drilled or opened using explosives, and trenches and pits are dug. Land is cleared and roads are constructed.  After roads are developed, mining companies clear cut the forests and the fragmented rock on top of the mountains with more explosives, in order to expose the coal seams.  Exposing coal seams results in the leveling of mountain tops in the mountain ranges of Appalachia.  Mountains in the Appalachian region have been lowered by 800 to 1,000 feet.  Exposing coal seams also creates “valley fill,” the rubble or mine spoil then sits along edges precariously until it is dumped in the valleys.

Many Appalachia residents first encounter coal companies during the exploration stage of MTR mining.  Residents are given letters offering homeowners a chance to have their property surveyed in case any damage occurs during blasting.  The survey is supposed to make it easier to distinguish preexisting damage from the damage associated with the explosion.  However, surveying is very expensive and most residents cannot afford to participate in the process, leaving them with no concrete evidence of blasting damage to their homes.  Blasting cracks walls and foundations of houses, greatly reducing property values.  Noise, dust and the property damage resulting from blasting are often the most common complaints from residents.  There is also noise and dust created from the constant array of coal trucks hauling various materials in and out of the area.

Air pollution increases in Appalachia as the number of MTR coal mines grows.  Particulate matter is blasted into the air, along with residue from the explosives.  The clear cutting of forest that takes place to build mines leads to a rise in greenhouse gas emissions.  When deforestation and land transformation from MTR are included, life cycle greenhouse gas emissions from coal increase up to 17%.  Water pollution is also a result of MTR mining that negatively affects the population of Appalachia.  Water pollution occurs largely because valley fill is not considered an infringement on the Clean Water Act. Valley fill from MTR was ruled a violation of the Clean Water Act in a 1999 US District Court decision.  Unfortunately, the meaning of “fill material” was redefined by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE) after fierce lobbying to have the decision reversed.  A dramatic increase in the number of MTR projects resulted from this decision.  The EPA reexamined the issue in 2009, threatening to use veto authority under the Clean Water Act to reverse permits issued by the ACOE.

Actions to limit the number of MTR projects have only occurred twelve times since 1972.  The Obama administration’s veto on the largest MTR mining permit, Spruce Mine in West Virginia, was overturned by a federal judge on March 23, 2012.  U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson ruled that the EPA is not authorized to withdraw a Clean Water Act permit that already was issued by the ACOE.

Legally defined as a pollutant or not, valley fill is definitely tied to stream health.  Electrical conductivity, a measure of ion concentration, is used as an indicator of stream health.  The EPA recommends electrical conductivity to not exceed 500 microsiemens per cm.  In areas of most intense MTR mining, where 92% of watershed has been mined, a recent study revealed levels of 1,1000 microsiemens per cm. Gregory J. Pond, an environmental biologist with EPA Region 3 in Wheeling, and his team, showed that more than 90% of 27 Appalachian streams below valley fill sites were impaired as per Clean Water Act standards.  None of the ten streams sampled in non-mined valleys were impaired.  The Clean Water Act specifies that streams must be appropriate for “designated uses,” like recreation, human consumption of fish, and protection of aquatic life health.

Stream health is not only affected by valley fill, but “slurry” pollution as well.  Slurry refers to the mixture of chemicals—clay, non-carbonaceous rock, and heavy metals—that coal is washed in directly after it is mined to reduce impurities and prepare for combustion.  Slurry is moved by the gallon to impoundments that are found along the periphery and at various elevations in areas to MTR sites, often adjacent to coal processing plants.  During heavy precipitation events, unlined slurry dams, or those lined with dried slurry are susceptible to breaching and collapse.  In West Virginia alone, there are over 110 billion gallons of coal slurry permitted for 126 impoundments.  Between 1972 and 2008, there were 53 publicized coal slurry spills in the Appalachian region; one of the largest was a 209 million gallon spill that occurred in Martin County, KY in 2000.  Most of the 1,300 impoundments in the nation are poorly constructed, increasing the threat of slurry leaching into groundwater supplies, nearby bodies of water, or water supplied for household and agricultural use.  If environmental quality issues in Appalachia are not addressed, the land, water and air will continue to decline, making it even more difficult to foster economic vitality in a region that truly needs it.

Sources:

Burns, Shirley Stewart. Bringing down the Mountains: The Impact of Mountaintop Removal Surface Coal Mining on Southern West Virginia Communities, 1970-2004. Morgantown, W. Va.: West Virginia UP, 2007. Print.

Epstein,et al. “Full Cost Accounting for the Life Cycle of Coal.” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1219.1 (2011): 73-98. Print.

Holzman, David C. “Mountaintop Removal Mining: Digging into Community Health Concerns.” Environmental Health Perspectives 119:12 (2011): A476-A483.

Stretesky, Paul B. and Lynch, Michael J. “Coal Strip Mining, Mountaintop Removal, and the Distribution of Environmental Violations across the United States.” Landscape Research, 36:2 (2011): 209-230.

 Ward, Ken. “W.Va. Delegation Asks White House to Review EPA over Spruce Mine” West Virginia Gazette, 17 Dec. 2010. Web. 30 Apr. 2012. <http://wvgazette.com/News/201012170919&gt;.