Selling Our Health Down the River

June 16, 2015
Who will protect our water?

Listen to experts and report authors discuss the rule here.

Fossil-fuel burning power plants discharge at least 5 .5 billion pounds of pollution into rivers, streams, lakes and bays each year. Coal-burning plants in particular discharge some of the most dangerous heavy  metals  on earth, including arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead, mercury and selenium.

Power  plant  wastewater has contributed to over 23,000 miles of contaminated rivers, fish too polluted to eat in 185 bodies of water, and the degradation of 399 water bodies that are used as public drinking water sources.

In September 2015, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)  will issue new regulations to reduce toxic pollutants in power plant wastewater, which will produce enormous benefits to human health and the environment. This report discusses the health benefits the new rules could achieve by eliminating toxic power plant  water pollution and examines EPA’s estimate of the monetary value of these benefits. The report finds:

EPA’s water  toxics rule will reduce risks of cancer and neurological damage, especially to the developing brains and nervous systems of children.

  • Power plants discharge tens of thousands of pounds of cancer-causing pollutants into  waterways each year, including arsenic, which  is known to cause cancers of the lung, kidney, bladder, skin and other organs, and hexavalent chromium, which  can cause stomach cancer. These carcinogens contaminate water used for fishing and swimming, and enter  drinking water supplies .
  • Power plants discharge dangerous neurotoxins including lead and mercury. Lead can reduce IQ, affect mental development, and cause hyperactivity and behavioral and attention deficits. Mercury is capable of causing  profound and permanent developmental and neurological delays to babies  exposed in utero. The most common pathway of exposure is the mother’s consumption of mercury-contaminated fish.

EPA underestimated the monetary value of the rule’s positive  benefits  by a large margin.

EPA estimated the monetary value of three specific human  health  benefits anticipated from the proposed rule .  It calculated those  benefits would be worth—if the rule were  implemented in its stronger forms—between $14 and $20  million per year .  However, EPA’s estimate disregards multiple other benefits to human  health that would result  from the rule, such as those  associated with reducing:

  • risks likely  to persist in drinking water, even after  treatment, both near power plants  and further downstream;
  • the greater-than-recognized cancer  risk from arsenic  exposure through drinking water and fish consumption, due to EPA’s reliance  on an outdated assessment of arsenic’s  cancer  potency;
  • the full range  of possible harm  from downstream consumption of contaminated fish, including the effects of exposure to lead after  age seven and to mercury after  birth,  other neurological impacts besides  loss of IQ, and risks from other neurotoxins discharged by power plants;  and
  • the full, cumulative health  and environmental impacts suffered by communities adjacent to and downstream of the plants.

EPA’s estimate also leaves out  the many benefits to human  and ecological health that cannot readily be monetized.

A full accounting of the human health benefits unambiguously justifies a stringent rule.

  • A comprehensive valuation of the human health  benefits of the proposed rule would be far greater than  the $14 to $20  million per year estimated by EPA . Taking into account the value of the many  benefits not  quantified by EPA, a strong final rule would create hundreds of millions of dollars in additional benefits every  year.
  • Human health will benefit.  Water will be safer to drink, fish will be safer to eat, fewer people will develop cancer, fewer children will experience neurological damage, and the toxic burden on vulnerable communities, including communities of color and low-income communities, will be reduced.
  • The rule will contribute immense, if un-monetized, additional benefits in the form of clean and healthy watersheds.
  • These benefits will be achieved only  if EPA finalizes the rule in a robust form that requires the elimination of nearly  all toxic discharges from coal-fired power plants.
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