The agency estimates the rule will help prevent more than 6,000 premature deaths and as many as 150,000 asthma attacks in children with a public health benefit valued up to as much as $93 billion.
Under the plan, states will be allowed to come up with their own plan for meeting federal emission reduction targets, which they could do by investing in renewable energies such as wind and solar power, or by entering a cap-and-trade system such as ones already implemented in California and other states in the northeast.
“What individual states choose to do as part of their compliance plan will be what drives public health benefits,” said Rachel Cleetus, a senior economist with the Union of Concerned Scientists. “A transition away from coal to cleaner-burning resources is the kind of move that would help clean up the air.”
Experts believe lower-income and minority groups could see some of the most significant public health benefits because they experience a higher prevalence of lung-related diseases such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
A 2012 report from the NAACP found that a majority of people who reside within three miles of a coal-burning power plant earn an average annual income of $18,400—and among that group, 39% are people of color.
Low-income groups, regardless of their proximity to a power plant, experience effects of air pollutants at disproportionately higher rates than more affluent Americans, in part because they lack regular access to healthcare. About 26 million people in the U.S. had asthma in 2011, according to the American Lung Association. The prevalence was 47% higher among blacks than whites.
“Everything that we do to reduce air pollution is really going to serve to reduce some of the health disparities in those communities,” said Kim Knowlton, a senior scientist for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
The EPA is expected to finalize the rule by next year with states required to submit plans by 2016.
Follow Steven Ross Johnson on Twitter: @MHsjohnson