Mercury Rule on Chopping Block After 80% Cut in Pollution

By changing the cost-benefit analysis, the EPA will give power plants a break on pollution controls that cost them billions a year.

The Dave Johnson coal-fired power plant is silhouetted against the morning sun in Glenrock, Wyo. (AP Photo/J. David Ake, File)

WASHINGTON (CN) — The Environmental Protection Agency is poised Thursday to weaken mercury-emission rules by no longer giving weight to the attendant benefits that come with tougher pollution controls.

Former President Barack Obama’s EPA had enacted the last standard in 2012. Though the cost of installing expensive pollution controls totaled some $9.6 billion a year for coal-burning power plants, it found the expense justified by the benefits, which it tallied to include reductions of mercury as well as sulfur dioxide, fine particulate matter and other pollutants from the same controls.

The Environmental Defense Fund credits this MATS rule, short for Mercury and Air Toxics Standard, with reducing mercury pollution by 80% in the last eight years.

But the EPA under President Donald Trump announced in February 2019 that it no longer deemed it necessary to consider any so-called “co-benefits” regarding other pollutant reductions when considering the cost of controls that reduce mercury emissions.

Multiple news outlets quoting anonymous officials say that the EPA will finalize the rule late Thursday in the Federal Register. According to draft comments first reported this morning by Bloomberg, Administrator Andrew Wheeler is expected to say the change “corrects the flaws in the previous finding, while still maintaining the agency’s mercury emissions protections.”

Wheeler is also expected to assure the public that, “under this action, no more mercury will be emitted into the air than before.”

Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group — a conservationist activist group focused on protecting human health and the environment — called the plan “beyond stupid.”

“The Trump EPA is actively working against the American people and their health and safety — and there’s no clearer example than this reckless decision made at the behest of a few coal industry executives,” Cook said in a statement Thursday. 

Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund, says the reduction of mercury since 2012 has translated to the prevention of thousands of illnesses and about 11,000 lives saved.

“Wheeler’s plan for the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards would allow U.S. power plants to emit more mercury and led each year, both of which get into our air, water and food and cause brain damage in babies and young children,” he said. “It would allow more arsenic and acid gases.”

Dominique Browning, director and co-founder of Moms Clean Air Force, tied the risk of the rollback to what is known so far about the novel coronavirus that has wreaked global havoc in four short months.

“While America suffers devastating public health impacts of the coronavirus outbreak — a lethal respiratory pandemic — Andrew Wheeler and the Trump administration continue their cynical campaign to protect industrial polluters and undermine life-saving pollution protections,” Browning said in a statement. 

“We have been mystified as to why Trump’s EPA would cripple a rule that is a fully implemented, highly effective pollution standard that is protecting babies’ brains from mercury and other air toxics from coal plants.” 

The move by Wheeler is the fifth deregulatory measure by the agency in six weeks, with the EPA also weakening car emissions standards and weakening reliance of public health studies for environmental impact — restricting research available to scientists considering pollution restrictions. 

As the EPA has prepared to finalize the rule, it published a fact sheet that says the cost of MATS compliance, at more than $7.4 billion a year, “dwarfs the monetized HAP benefits, using an abbreviation for hazardous air pollutant. It said the monetized HAP benefits of the rule amount to no more than $6 million a year.

Methylmercury is the byproduct of burning coal, which is a neurotoxin that affects children and infants. That contaminant condenses in the air, concentrating in many animals like tuna, sea bass and other commercial seafood.

At a House hearing in February, Toney at Moms Clean Air Force testified that coal-fired plants were the largest source of mercury emissions in the country, according to a 2005 study. 

That same research, she said, calculated the economic loss in intelligence and productivity to newborns with mercury poisoning at birth, at a $1.3 billion, solely from toxins retractable to coal-fired plants. 

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