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Illinois' Experience Shows That Mercury Pollution Controls Work

12/28/2011 11:53 am ET | Updated Feb 27, 2012

The Dec. 22 historic announcement from the Obama Administration -- that it will require new pollution controls to limit the toxic chemicals coming out of coal plants across America -- is a huge victory for public health. More than 20 years after Congress required these controls, the President and EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson are standing up to the special interests who have blocked action for so long to do the right thing for the health of our children.

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The new pollution controls will save an estimated 11,000 lives per year, including 570 annually in Illinois. They will protect children's developing brains and nervous systems from mercury and other neurotoxins. However, we know big coal and their allies will object, and their defenders in Congress will make all the usual false claims -- that if we protect our kids' health, the lights will go out, electric bills will skyrocket, and life as we know it will grind to a halt.

Those claims aren't new -- polluters often react to calls to innovate with scare tactics and delay. In the end, of course, pollution controls always turn out to be cheaper than feared, and jobs are created in their design, installation, and operation.

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In this case, here in Illinois, we've already proven them wrong. Coal plants in Illinois had to cut their mercury pollution by 90 percent (the same cut EPA is now calling for) back in 2009. Since then, the controls have been installed at plants across Illinois, and they are working as expected, or better, in reducing toxic mercury pollution. Laurel Kroack, chief of the Illinois EPA's bureau of air said:

We've had a lot of success in Illinois; we're very pleased. A lot of (utilities) thought they would never get to 90 percent, but with a few tweaks, they got beyond it.

Not only are the pollution controls working, electric rates have stayed the same, and are projected to decline in the near future, not increase. There has been no shortage of power as a result; in fact, Illinois produces more electricity than it consumes. Installing the controls has provided good jobs at a time when we needed them most.

Illinois leaders are welcoming the federal action. Governor Quinn said:

High levels of mercury pose serious health risks, which is why we must do everything we can to ensure clean, healthy air for generations. I would like to thank President Obama and the USEPA for their mercury and air toxics standards rule. In Illinois, we have seen the benefits of enacting stringent requirements for reducing mercury emissions over the last several years. As a result, thousands of pounds of harmful mercury emissions have been kept out of our air. The President's action will protect millions of Americans from these dangerous emissions just like we have been doing in Illinois.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said:

I commend the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for introducing new standards to reduce levels of dangerous toxins in our air. Limiting emissions of mercury and other pollutants from coal and oil-fired power plants will save thousands of lives, protect public health, and create jobs for Americans. Our experience in Illinois has shown that mercury emissions can be dramatically reduced without any impact on reliability, cost, or quality of service. We must continue to clean our air and clean up this industry across the country, to create opportunities for Americans and allow all Americans to lead healthier lives.

As the President said, "today is a good day", and in more ways than one. It's certainly a good day for the country, but especially for all of us in Illinois who feel like we're due for being first at something really good for a change.

Join me in thanking President Obama here.

*Photos are author's own.

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