Does the EPA Know Which Industry is America’s Dirtiest?

Today the EPA filed a laudable lawsuit against Kansas-based Westar Energy for violating the New Source Review provision of the Clean Air Act. Laxly enforced by the Bush Administration, the rule requires power plants to install more advanced pollution-control technologies when they perform upgrades. The EPA action is part of what it bills “a national initiative to stop illegal pollution from coal-fired power plants.” Sounds good to me, but unfortunately the EPA gets a bit carried away in its press release, which says: “Coal-fired power plants collectively produce more pollution than any other industry in the United States.”

According to the EPA’s own Toxics Release Inventory, the number one polluter in America is metal mining. While it’s true that coal-fired power plants emit large amounts of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, and particulates, they don’t hold a candle to metal mining when it comes to mercury–metal mines release nine times more mercury that all other U.S. industries combined. And though most mines are further away from population centers than coal-fired power plants, they’ve been implicated in acid rain problems in the Midwest.

None of this means we shouldn’t better regulate coal plants. But mining is being almost totally forgotten in the climate and pollution debate–all the more galling considering the millions in taxpayer subsidies received by mining companies each year.