Interview: Earthjustice’s James Pew

EarthTalk’s Ethan Goffman caught up with James Pew, staff attorney for Earthjustice, to find out more about the upcoming Supreme Court case regarding power plant emissions of toxic substances…

If you’d rather read it than watch it, the full transcript of our discussion with James Pew is below…

EarthTalk: The EPA is working on rules to limit global warming emissions from power plants, but mercury emissions have received less publicity. Why should the public be paying attention to this issue?

pew700 225x150 Interview: Earthjustices James PewJames Pew: Actually, before I start it’s not just mercury from power plants that aren’t regulated. They’re the worst emitters of arsenic, lead, chromium, lots of things that cause cancer. They emit huge amounts of toxic acid gases like hydrogen chloride. None of that’s controlled. It’s amazing that here we are sitting in 2015; they don’t have limits on any of those things. And it becomes even more amazing when you think that Congress passed a law to address these pollutants back in 1990. And what Congress wanted the Environmental Protection Agency to do was to study the power industry, study what its emissions would likely be when other provisions of the Clean Air Act were put into place, and then determine whether it was appropriate and necessary to set air toxic standards for the mercury and the arsenic and so forth for this industry. When EPA completed the study, eight years later in 1998, it found what was already pretty obvious which is that power plants are the worst emitters of these pollutants. They’re going to continue being the worst emitters of these pollutants until somebody puts controls on them, which won’t happen without a rule from the EPA under this law, and that the problem is a very serious one for health because 7 percent of American women have more mercury in their bodies than is safe for their babies when they’re born. People are dying because of the fine particulate matter emissions. The emissions of arsenic and other metals are the worst of any industry. This is an industry that needs controls more than any other industry and, unlike any other industry has avoided those controls for years, largely by putting pressure first on Congress and then on EPA not to regulate. But we finally got to the point where we have controls in place and ready to actually start getting them reducing their emissions. And they’re making a last-ditch effort to stop this from happening, so that they can complete polluting, by going to the Supreme Court and asking them to throw these rules out. So lives are at stake, health is at stake, and the environment is at stake too. One of the big environmental effects of mercury emissions from power plants is contaminating the waters and the fish so that now every single state in the union, all fifty states have mercury warnings in their fish saying that the fish are unsafe to consume more than every so often.

E: So it’s bad whether you care about ecosystem health or human health.

Pew: Right, these are the worst of the worst polluters and unlike every other industry they haven’t cleaned up yet. The chemical industry, the refining industry, all of the other big polluters have at least taken steps toward cleaning up their toxic emissions. Power plants are the worst and they’re the ones who haven’t cleaned up yet.

E: And why is March 25th such a crucial date? What’s being decided then?

Pew: Well, nothing’s being decided but what’s going to happen is the Supreme Court is going to hear argument on whether these rules, these rules that are going to save so many lives, should be thrown out. The power industry is asking the Supreme Court to throw out these rules, and if they got what they’re asking for it would set these protections back by decades. So for years longer people would continue dying unnecessarily, thousands per year. The toxins would keep piling up in our streams. American mothers would keep having children with too much mercury in their bodies. All of this stuff would go on forever if the power industry is successful in this lawsuit. So this hearing is very, very important.

E: Okay, and can you say a little bit more about the public health impacts, like what are some specific effects that women are having with their children and do you have any statistics about that also?

Pew: One thing to think about is that I find helps put a face on this is when EPA says that this rule is going to save between 4,200 and 11,000 lives every year, who are those people? They’re the people who are really vulnerable in the population so old people with respiratory disease are being killed off prematurely. That I think is pretty horrible to contemplate. Even worse, children with asthma are dying as a result of this pollution. So these are deaths that are completely unnecessary. These people don’t have to die and they’re dying unnecessarily because the power industry hasn’t been willing to clean up its pollution until now. So that’s one way, I think, to sort of put this in a more human perspective. As for the mercury pollution, that’s something that is so dangerous to children. The way that mercury works on the body is it harms neurological development. The brain is a nerve cluster and when children’s brains are developing, being exposed to mercury damage, there’s no way to quantify how bad that damage is. But the idea for any mother or any parent that their child is going to develop less than they would absent this pollution is pretty shocking. And the idea that that’ happening only because the power plant industry is unwilling to clean up this pollution, that this is an avoidable damage, that really shines a light on why it’s so important to get this cleaned up.

E: And I gather that it can, for instance, lower IQ points over the long term and that it builds up in the body over years.

Pew: That’s exactly right. So mercury poisoning, as the popular song says, it doesn’t go away it just builds up. So once you have it in your body it just builds up. But what’s really bad is when people have it in their bodies before they’re born or when they’re babies. Because it does lower IQ points. And that is just such a shame and such an unnecessary harm. Children shouldn’t be deprived of the opportunity to develop as much as they possibly can and especially shouldn’t be deprived of it just so the power industry can avoid cleaning up some of its toxic pollution.

E: Great, and can you say a little bit more about environmental impacts. What kinds of effects on aquatic ecosystems is it having?

Pew: Well that’s right. As you mentioned it builds up; it’s a pollution that’s persistent. So once mercury gets out it’s an element, it gets deposited in the waters, it goes up in the air, it comes down in our rain, it gets deposited in our waters, and it doesn’t go away. It’s not going to go away like some other pollutants, it’s an element it’s going to stay there. But what it does do is build up in the food chain. It gets more and more concentrated as it gets eaten by small fish, those fish are more concentrated than in the plants. And once again they get eaten by large fish. So by the time you get to the top of the food chain, large fish and then the people who eat those large fish, it’s especially concentrated. Now the problem with that has been recognized by every state in the country now. Every state now has warnings about consuming fish caught in fresh waters. The idea that you can’t go fishing and eat the fish you catch, I think is something that most people would say that’s not acceptable.

E: And that’s largely attributable to our power companies?

Pew: Well, it’s not entirely power companies, but they are the biggest emitters, they account for half the mercury emissions in the country.

E: Great. And what’s your response to the power plant industry’s claim that this would be one of the most costly environmental rules of all time and that it would place an undue burden on them?

Pew: Well, this rule will cost the power industry money and those costs are not trivial. But, let’s put them side-by-side with the cost of continuing to allow this industry to omit these toxic pollutants without controlling them. According to EPA the cost to the power industry is $9 billion a year. According to EPA the cost of not controlling it is, the benefits that we would be forgoing if we didn’t have this rule, are $30 to 90 billion a year. The value, to the extent that you can put value on people’s life, the value of all the people who aren’t going to die unnecessarily, the money value is $30 to 90 billion a year. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg; that’s not counting the people who won’t get cancer as a result of exposure to these power plants’ arsenic emissions. It doesn’t really count the value of the children who won’t develop as fully as they would if they weren’t exposed to mercury in the womb. So the cost is not insignificant for the power industry, but the cost of not doing this is a whole lot bigger for the public if these rules weren’t put in place.

E: So the polluter needs to pay for the damage that they’re doing, or better yet not cause the damage in the first place?

Pew: It’s best not to cause the damage in the first place. So really there’s a couple ways to look at it. One is this rule is a very good bargain. The other is the people who should be paying for this are the companies who are polluting and not the children who are being made sick or the people who are dying prematurely. They shouldn’t be ask to pay for the polluters to be able to keep emitting without controlling their pollution.

E: And if the Supreme Court were to rule against the EPA regulations here, what would be the broader implications, perhaps for other environmental rules?

Pew: Well, it’s almost harder to think of broader implications because the implication of throwing this rule out is so big and so broad. But the underlying argument, the argument that the power industry is trying to sell to the Supreme Court, is that there should be this rigged cost-benefit analysis that would apply to all environmental regulation and would effectively stop environmental regulations from going through. Because what they would like to do is subject all environmental controls to a cost-benefit analysis in which all the costs are considered, but only a tiny fraction of the benefits are considered. And if they rig the game that way, if they were successful, it would always look as if environmental rules, whether it’s controlling toxic pollutions in the air, whether it’s controlling toxic pollutions in the water, if this sort of scam were to be successful it would always look as if those rules don’t have value, when in fact if you look at the big picture they have enormous value and they’re well worth pushing through.

E: Often value that’s difficult to quantify. Thanks very much!