Over the next few days, the Obama administration will decide whether to address a major public health challenge facing the country: the large amount of mercury that continually pours out of coal-fired power plants, contaminating our air and drinking water.
Every year, mercury from coal-fired power plants is responsible for thousands of premature deaths, heart attacks, and serious respiratory illnesses. In addition, mercury is one of the leading causes of preventable birth defects.
Today, because of mercury, a baby may be born with brain damage or cerebral palsy. An infant may begin developing asthma, which will mean missed school days, visits to the hospital, less physical exercise, and potentially a greater risk of diabetes. And a parent or grandparent may go to the hospital with a heart attack or severe bronchitis.
We can stop this. We can spare children this tragic injustice and the pain it brings their families. We can spare adults from losing years off their lives. And we can spare taxpayers the enormous health care costs that come with mercury-related-illnesses.
Coal-fired power plants are responsible for 70 percent of our nation's mercury emissions. After being released into the air we breathe, mercury -- a heavy metal -- also falls into our soil and water, where it can contaminate the food we eat, especially fish.
The EPA has proposed rules that would reduce mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants by 90%, preventing 12,200 emergency room visits and saving $80 billion a year in health care costs. The rules -- now sitting on the president's desk -- are two decades overdue.
In 1990, when the Clean Air Act was last revised, Congress directed the EPA to establish limits on mercury and other emissions of coal-fired power plants. In March, after 20 years of delay, the EPA has finally issued a set of draft rules. By Monday, the president will decide whether to adopt the draft rules, weaken them, or withdraw them entirely. It will be one of the defining tests of the administration's commitment to public health and environmental protection.
The big power companies have had years to improve mercury emissions controls, and a majority of coal-fired plants (54%) have already done so. The remaining coal-fired plants are generally old and inefficient, and should have been retired years ago. The owners of these plants have been promoting the idea that the EPA's rules will destroy the American economy and cause rolling blackouts. They won't. It's just a scare tactic. In fact, some of the leading voices in our nation's utility industry -- the businesses that run our power lines -- do not object to the EPA's proposed rules.
The utility industry knows that if plant owners decide it is not cost-effective to adopt mercury emission controls, those plants can be converted to cleaner-burning natural gas. That would create even more jobs and reduce costs for consumers, because natural gas plants are more efficient than coal plants. Many old plants have already undergone this transformation, and the American economy -- not to mention our public health -- is stronger for it.
Owners of mercury-emitting coal-fired plants also argue they need more time, as well as long-term exemptions for some plants. There will always be excuses for delay. But two decades is long enough for the American people to wait for mercury to be removed from the air we breathe.
Coal-fired power plants and the pollution they produce -- including mercury -- are the number one threat to our public health and the environment. That is why my foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies, recently provided a $50 million grant to the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign, with the goal of retiring one-third of the nation's coal fleet by 2020. But the federal government must not wait another decade -- or another week -- to begin phasing out a pollutant that has harmed so many people's health.
This is not an issue of jobs versus the environment. It's an issue of the American people's public health versus a narrow special interest. And it is now up to the President to declare the winner.
Follow Michael R. Bloomberg on Twitter: www.twitter.com/MikeBloomberg