EPA mer­cury rule could have far-reach­ing ef­fects

USA TODAY Weekend Extra - - NEWS - Led­yard King

WASH­ING­TON – The En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency is propos­ing to roll back mer­cury emis­sion stan­dards ap­plied to power plants by sig­nif­i­cantly de­valu­ing the health ben­e­fits that jus­ti­fied the cur­rent rule. Crit­ics say the move could be used to weaken a raft of other fed­eral en­vi­ron­men­tal reg­u­la­tions that Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump wants to elim­i­nate.

The Mer­cury and Air Tox­ics Stan­dards, or MATS, as it’s called, went into ef­fect in 2015 un­der the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion. At the time, the cost to in­dus­try for in­stalling the tech­nol­ogy to re­duce mer­cury emis­sions was es­ti­mated at nearly $10 bil­lion, while the health ben­e­fits were cal­cu­lated at only sev­eral mil­lion dol­lars.

But the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion also fac­tored in “co-ben­e­fits” the rule would pro­duce, such as re­duc­tions in soot and ni­tro­gen ox­ide, rais­ing the max­i­mum ben­e­fits to as much as $90 bil­lion through re­duced pre­ma­ture deaths, sick days and hospi­tal vis­its.

Mer­cury is a neu­ro­toxin that can af­fect brain de­vel­op­ment, par­tic­u­larly in in­fants and young chil­dren. It’s pri­mar­ily in­gested through the con­sump­tion of fish.

The rule had an im­me­di­ate ef­fect. Re­ported emis­sions de­clined 69 per­cent be­tween 2014 and 2016 af­ter coal-fired power plants in­stalled tech­nol­ogy to meet the new clean air stan­dards.

On Fri­day, the EPA an­nounced it was “pro­vid­ing reg­u­la­tory cer­tainty by trans­par­ently and ac­cu­rately” re­cal­cu­lat­ing the math be­hind the ex­ist­ing rule – es­sen­tially re­mov­ing the co-ben­e­fits un­der Obama from the equa­tion.

The re­vised es­ti­mate, which shows MATS cost­ing the in­dus­try far more than the health ben­e­fits it pro­vides the pub­lic, makes it legally eas­ier for the ad­min­is­tra­tion to de­fend the weaker stan­dard in court.

As a re­sult, “the Agency pro­poses to de­ter­mine that it is not “ap­pro­pri­ate and nec­es­sary” to reg­u­late HAP emis­sions from power plants un­der … the Clean Air Act,” ac­cord­ing to the EPA state­ment.

The agency is ac­cept­ing com­ments on the pro­posal for 60 days af­ter pub­li­ca­tion in the Fed­eral Regis­ter and then will hold a pub­lic hear­ing.

En­vi­ron­men­tal and pub­lic health ad­vo­cates blasted the an­nounce­ment.

“With this ac­tion, EPA is also set­ting a dan­ger­ous prece­dent that a fed­eral agency – charged with pro­tect­ing the en­vi­ron­ment and pub­lic health – will no longer fac­tor in all the clear health, en­vi­ron­men­tal, and eco­nomics ben­e­fits of clean air po­lices, such as re­duc­ing can­cer and birth de­fects,” said Sen. Tom Carper, D-Delaware, who is the top Demo­crat on the Se­nate En­vi­ron­ment and Pub­lic Works Com­mit­tee.

Harold P. Wim­mer, pres­i­dent and CEO of the Amer­i­can Lung As­so­ci­a­tion, said the cur­rent rule shouldn’t be weak­ened con­sid­er­ing it’s es­ti­mated to pre­vent 11,000 pre­ma­ture deaths each year and has dra­mat­i­cally re­duced mer­cury pol­lu­tion, a po­tent neu­ro­toxin that causes brain dam­age in ba­bies.

“There is no le­git­i­mate jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for this ac­tion,” he said. “EPA’s pro­posal to un­der­mine the Mer­cury and Air Tox­ics Stan­dards is one of its most dan­ger­ous ef­forts yet.”

But Jeff Holm­stead, who served as EPA’s air ad­min­is­tra­tor un­der Ge­orge W. Bush, said the ini­tial cal­cu­la­tion by the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion tipped the scales in fa­vor of gov­ern­ment reg­u­la­tion given that the cost to in­dus­try was nearly $10 bil­lion for pro­vid­ing a direct ben­e­fit that amounted to less than $10 mil­lion.

“With this huge dis­par­ity be­tween the costs and ben­e­fits that EPA was sup­posed to be look­ing at, it seemed pretty out­ra­geous for EPA to claim that it was ap­pro­pri­ate to reg­u­late power plants un­der this par­tic­u­lar sec­tion of the Clean Air Act,” he said.

Few think util­i­ties would spend money to re­move what they’ve in­stalled.

And the EPA pro­posal makes clear “the emis­sion stan­dards and other re­quire­ments of the MATS rule would re­main in place as EPA is not propos­ing to re­move coal- and oil-fired power plants from the list of sources that are reg­u­lated un­der (the Clean Air Act).”

But the larger con­cern among pub­lic health ad­vo­cates is that the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion could use the same ap­proach of re­duc­ing health ben­e­fits for other reg­u­la­tions as it’s do­ing with MATS.

Dereg­u­la­tion has been a cor­ner­stone of the Make Amer­ica Great Again agenda un­der Trump, who views many of the anti-pol­lu­tion rules im­ple­mented un­der for­mer Pres­i­dent Barack Obama as ob­sta­cles to his plans for eco­nomic ex­pan­sion.

Celia Chen, di­rec­tor of the Dart­mouth Toxic Met­als Su­per­fund Re­search Pro­gram at Dart­mouth Col­lege, said the dan­gers of mer­cury are bet­ter known than they were just a few years ago when the rule was be­ing crafted un­der Obama. By chang­ing the cal­cu­la­tion be­hind MATS, other reg­u­la­tions could be weak­ened us­ing sim­i­lar tac­tics.

“That’s the big worry,” she said. “If you get to pick and choose what the costs are and what the ben­e­fits are then you can have it come out the way you want.”

“EPA’s pro­posal to un­der­mine the Mer­cury and Air Tox­ics Stan­dards is one of its most dan­ger­ous ef­forts yet.” Harold P. Wim­mer CEO, Amer­i­can Lung As­so­ci­a­tion


In 2016, the Supreme Court up­held a rule lim­it­ing mer­cury emis­sions from coal-fired power plants. Crit­ics say Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion changes to the rule would de­value the way ben­e­fits to hu­man health are cal­cu­lated.


As a can­di­date, Don­ald Trump promised dereg­u­la­tion.

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