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What Are The Actual Costs Of Doing Nothing About Pollution?

Far higher than the costs of getting rid of coal.

What Are The Actual Costs Of Doing Nothing About Pollution?
[Photos: janonkas via Shutterstock]

Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell recently urged states to join those already “refusing to go along” with EPA regulations that would cut air pollution from coal-fired power plants. Chief among his arguments is the cost of cleaning up smokestack emissions, which he calls “an attack on the middle class.” Apparently, smoke from this 19th century technology has clouded the senator’s views of the 21st century economy, because the truth is precisely the opposite.

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The senator cities unnamed economists who predict the regulations “could cost our country about a third of a trillion dollars in compliance costs and cause electricity price hikes in nearly every state,” but I’ll wager that his sources fail to account for the jobs and businesses created by investments in clean, renewable energy alternatives or the high price of pollution-related health care costs.


Since 2007, in California alone, nearly a quarter-million rooftop solar installations have created some 3,500 businesses and 25,000 jobs in the hard-hit construction industry. By contrast, a Kentucky state report shows “employment at all Kentucky coal mines and related facilities . . . was estimated at 12,342.” Nationally, 140,000 people currently work in America’s solar industry, and the economic benefits of wind, hydro, biomass, and other clean renewables add still more to that total.

Nor are the health consequences of burning fossil fuels often included when citing the costs of pollution control measures. Earlier this month, researchers reported that “reducing air pollution leads to improved respiratory function in children ages 11 to 15, a critical period of lung development.” These benefits coincided with federal and state regulations that cut fine particulates “by 50 percent and nitrogen dioxide levels by 35 percent in the communities” of the study’s area and timeframe. What is the economic value of the health of our kids?


Or what is the value of the ability to learn? The Canadian Medical Association recently reported that researchers measured air pollution in schools and found “working memory improved 7.4% among children in highly polluted schools compared with 11.5 percent among those in less polluted schools.” It also reports that adults benefit from air pollution reduction too: About 21,000 premature deaths are attributed to air pollution in Canada each year.

Yes, the cost of delaying air pollution controls are very real, though our lawmakers don’t agree. Nor do they talk about the cost of coal ash spills. Just one such disaster in North Carolina will add $100 million to taxpayer costs, not including the cost to clean up the Dan River; or compensate victims whose farms were destroyed; or cover costs for polluted water supplies as far as 70 miles downstream.


And what is the cost of mercury poisoning of our fish from coal-fired emissions? Mine accidents and deaths? Black lung disease? How about the cost of climate change impacts already being measured and paid for by the most vulnerable people on earth, from New Orleans in Hurricane Katrina to epic droughts in Texas and California, where crop and livestock losses have surely contributed to increases in food prices for consumers? How do these hidden costs help that middle class the senator wants to protect?

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Mr. McConnell also states that Congress is “devising strategies now” to fight the EPA. With all due respect, I suggest he turn congressional attention instead to dealing with these local, national, and global impacts of continued pollution from burning fossil fuels. As a former state regulator, I can attest to the benefits of thoughtful pollution controls (which may be achieved by many different approaches, to be sure), but I can equally assure the senator that the cost of inaction is far greater to public health, the economy, and the natural resources upon which our lives depend.

About the author

From his youth in Australia to career experiences in Europe, Africa, China and across the United States, Terry has developed expertise in business, farming, education, non-profit, the environment, the arts, and government. A United States Coast Guard-licensed ship captain, Terry has long been drawn to the undersea world, starting in the 1960s with a family-run tropical fish breeding business in Australia and continuing with studies on conch depletion in the Bahamas, manatee populations in Florida coastal waters, and mariculture in the Gulf States with Texas A&M University.

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