Ashby Response

Fear of change and reluctance to adapt are easy to spot, even if veiled in concern and bolstered by the statements of politically-biased policy organizations—fear is still fear.

Mr. Ashby’s January 2 column in the Holland Sentinel illustrates either extreme and unfounded distrust of a new policy that was written, passed, and will be implemented with the goal of improving the health of our community—or a misunderstanding of this same policy. I will address both possibilities in my rebuttal.

The announcement made by the EPA on December 21 concerned the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards rule, which was the fulfillment of requirements outlined by the Clean Air Act—groundbreaking legislation passed more than 20 years ago by a bipartisan congress. In the Rule, utility companies are held to Maximum Achievable Control Technology (MACT) standards based on many factors, like ease and cost of implementation, energy requirements and health and environmental impact.

The “Utility MACT” does indeed target coal plants—in fact, the official name is National Emissions Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants for Coal- and Oil-fueled Electricity Generating Units. Coal plants were not singled out by accident. They are linked to between 11,000 and 24,000 premature deaths and 38,000 heart attacks per year (American Lung Association); they are the single largest source of airborne mercury emissions in the U.S., and they release one ton of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour of electricity produced. The external cost estimates of burning coal start at $62 billion per year.

The burning of fossil fuels for electricity produces many chemical byproducts that enter the atmosphere as gases. Before the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards rule was signed, there was no national regulation on airborne emissions of toxic chemicals like sulfur dioxide, arsenic, mercury and other acid gases. Allowed to enter the environment unregulated, these toxins impair children’s growth, cause 130,000 asthma attacks a year, and result in an estimated 540,000 missed work days. In this case, the benefits far outweigh the expected costs of implementing the rule. Although there is some difficulty in placing a dollar value on human health, the benefits in reduced medical costs are expected to exceed $37 billion per year.

As for the coal plant closures announced “in response to the rule” as Mr. Ashby claims, see the December 2, 2011 Consumers Energy press release. Seven coal-fired generating plants will be closed by 2015 and a proposed new coal plant near Bay City will no longer be built. As the press release states, the condition of the energy market drove the decision making process. Economic pressures like reduced customer demand, surplus generating capacity in the Midwest market, and lower natural gas prices were all cited as factors in the decision. Mr. Ashby claims that “sustainable development cannot work in a free market system”; however coal is already not working in a free market system, as can be seen in the steadily-rising costs of coal, its transport, and use in electrical generation.

If Mr. Ashby believes his way of life and individual liberty is under attack by this regulation, I would invite him to look beyond himself to the countless number of lives that will be positively impacted by a reduction in toxic pollution. Consider the way of life of the 5,478 children in Ottawa County that suffer from asthma, a condition aggravated by the sulfur dioxide released by burning coal. Consider the 322,000 unborn children at risk nationwide for neurological disorders due to high levels of mercury in their mother’s blood. If caring about people is “hyper-environmentalism”, I would like to argue that it is, in fact, very good for everyone.

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