The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced today that it is not “appropriate and necessary” to regulate emissions of mercury and other hazardous air pollutants from coal- and oil-fired power plants.
In 2012, the EPA enacted the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS), which, as the EPA states on its own website, protects “our children and communities by limiting emissions of mercury and other air toxics from power plants.”
In December 2018, EPA head Andrew Wheeler issued a proposed revised Supplemental Cost Finding for the MATS and required risk and technology review under the Clean Air Act.
Despite opposition from unions, business groups, and even utilities, and despite proven scientific links between pollution and coronavirus death rates, the EPA announced (just before the daily White House coronavirus briefing) an overhaul of how the government calculates the health benefits of cleaner air by rolling back the legal basis for MATS, arguing in part that the benefits don’t justify the costs. But the Trump administration only considers direct benefits, not the millions of dollars spent on healthcare or lives lost. Even the EPA’s own Science Advisory Board found in January that this analysis is deeply flawed.
Mercury exposure has been linked to severe damage to the lungs, brain, and other organs, and those who are exposed often later experience developmental disorders. The reduction of other pollutants that are decreased when mercury emissions are controlled saves hundreds of lives annually and prevents illnesses such as asthma and heart attacks.
If today’s rule change were to survive the legal challenges that will most definitely follow (the Natural Resources Defense Council has already said in an email that it will fight this rollback in court), it will result in devastating health impacts in the US, including people in communities of color, pregnant women, and children living near coal and oil-fired power plants.
Impact on diverse communities
Like so many of the Trump administration’s rollbacks, this will have a disproportionately negative impact on those living in communities located near power plants; the most toxic polluting facilities are located in low-income communities and communities of color.
African-Americans are 75% more likely to reside in communities that are near polluting facilities and face a 54% higher health burden as a result of air pollution, compared with the general population. Similarly, Latinx communities are disproportionately affected, with almost 2 million Latinx living within a half-mile of polluting facilities.
When local regulatory agencies and zoning boards are able to concentrate polluters in poorer or less well-resourced communities, it becomes an issue of environmental and reproductive justice, as women of color, low-income women, and children are forcibly exposed to harmful pollutants.
Impact on children and pregnant women
Mercury and the toxins included in the MATS are uniquely damaging to children and pregnant women. Mercury disrupts the central nervous system function when ingested or absorbed through the skin. In pregnant women, fetuses can be exposed to mercury when developing brains and other organ systems are most at risk.
Importantly, even when pregnant women do not show any symptoms, developing fetuses can still be exposed to mercury. In addition, infants can swallow mercury in breast milk, contaminated food, water, dust, and dirt. In fact, developmentally appropriate activities for young children — such as crawling on the floor and exploring new objects by putting them in their mouths — put them at risk of consuming dangerous levels of mercury.
Studies have linked early mercury exposure to delays or dysfunction in language, attention, and memory well into adolescence.
Ellen Kurlansky, a former air policy analyst at the EPA Office of Air and Radiation from 1996 to 2018, was instrumental in the development of the MATS rules. She said in response to today’s decision:
This action, which is a gift to the coal industry at the expense of all Americans, is an attack on public health justified by a phony cost-benefit analysis that purposely inflates the cost of MATS and ignores the value of the human health benefits. Based on that deception, EPA says that the benefits of MATS aren’t worth the cost. Those benefits include the value of thousands of lives saved by MATS each year, hundreds of thousands of illnesses avoided each year, and avoided damage to the developing brains of the unborn.
Janet McCabe, who was former acting assistant administrator at the EPA Office of Air and Radiation from 2009-2017 and is now a professor at the Indiana University (IU) McKinney School of Law and director of the IU Environmental Resilience Institute, said:
This is a sad day for public health protection in the United States and sets a very troubling precedent for how the EPA evaluates the impact of policy on public health. Though the administration claims otherwise, this ruling puts at risk years of progress to reduce the public’s exposure to toxic pollutants like mercury that accumulate in the environment.
The MATS rule has been an overwhelming success, with mercury emissions from US coal plants decreasing 85% between 2006-2016 and mercury levels in water and fish also decreasing during this time period.
The power industry itself asked the administration to leave MATS alone because companies have already complied, but the EPA has decided to move forward anyway. This reflects the administration’s view of all rules intended to protect public access to clean air and water as barriers to business interests. It’s another favor to the coal industry.
The New York Times reiterate in detail why utilities themselves think this is a bad decision:
While coal producers urged Mr. Trump to roll back the rule, the vast majority of electric utility companies have agreed the cost-benefit changes may be of little help to them, because they have already spent the billions of dollars needed to come into compliance. Many of those companies urged the Trump administration to leave the mercury measure in place.
Coal plants subject to the rule ‘have already spent millions of dollars to install mercury equipment to reduce mercury emissions,’ wrote Scott A. Weaver, the director of air quality services for American Electric Power, an Ohio-based electric utility company that operates power plants in 11 states, in a public comment on a draft of the rule.
‘Rescinding the standards at this point will create new problems,’ Mr. Weaver wrote, noting that companies that have sought to recoup the cost of installing mercury control equipment through bills to customers may no longer legally be able to do so. That means the new rule could actually cost companies more money.
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