The proper role of government—how big it should be, and what, exactly, it should be doing—is a hot topic in our country.  Some say too many government regulations are slowing economic growth and preventing companies from creating new jobs.  Others say government has a critical role to play in revitalizing our economy and protecting our families and our communities from harm.

So what if a regulation will cost businesses money and time in the short term, but will protect us from toxic pollution for years to come?

On May 3, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed a new rule under the federal Clean Air Act to limit emissions of toxic chemicals, including mercury, arsenic, lead and dioxin, from power plants.  The rules will also limit emissions of fine particles into the air. The public now has 60 days to comment on the proposed rule. Click here to provide your feedback.

Why is this rule needed now?  Power companies have fought these regulations for 20 years, arguing that they will have to raise rates in order to install the new equipment necessary to reduce emissions of mercury and other toxics. 

However, the pollutants the rule will reduce are extremely hazardous. Mercury, for example, affects brain development, making even small exposures dangerous for children and women who are pregnant or could become pregnant.  The EPA estimates that as many as one in every six women in the U.S. has blood mercury levels high enough to put a developing baby at risk.  All 50 states have mercury advisories for consumption of at least some of the fish found in their lakes, rivers and streams. 

According to the EPA, nearly fifty percent of the mercury in our air and water (and fish!) comes from emissions from coal-burning power plants. This new rule will ultimately reduce those emissions by 91 percent. More than half of U.S. power plants already have pollution control equipment that meets the new standards—these new requirements will level the playing field by requiring that all power plants protect the public’s health from harmful emissions.

Mercury is only one of the toxic pollutants that will be reduced by this new rule. Other pollutants affected by the rule are linked to cancer, heart disease, chronic asthma and other significant health problems.  These health problems cost all of us—in higher insurance rates, in loss of productivity, and especially in loss of lives.  Among other benefits, the EPA estimates that by 2016 the new rules will help to prevent more than 12,000 emergency visits annually and 850,000 days of lost work.  The agency estimates that the rule’s restriction on fine particle emissions alone could save between $59 and $140 billion in health care costs annually in 2016.

Martin Luther wrote that government is the means “by which most of all God preserves to us our daily bread and all the comforts of this life.”  It seems to me that reducing highly toxic pollution and thereby improving public health fits his definition of good government.  What do you think?