WASHINGTON – The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit on Tuesday upheld the Environmental Protection Agency's first-ever limits on air toxics, including emissions of mercury, arsenic and acid gases, preserving a far-reaching rule the White House had touted as central to President Obama's environmental agenda.
In a 2-to-1 decision, the court ruled that the mercury rule "was substantively and procedurally valid," turning aside challenges brought both by Republican-led states that had argued the rule was onerous and environmental groups that had contended it did not go far enough.
The EPA welcomed the decision, calling it "a victory for public health and the environment." Liz Purchia, an agency spokeswoman, said, "These practical and cost-effective standards will save thousands of lives each year, prevent heart and asthma attacks, while slashing emissions of the neurotoxin mercury, which can impair children's ability to learn."
Environmentalists also hailed the ruling, which John Walke of the Natural Resources Defense Council called a "sweeping victory" for the EPA. Walke said that the mercury and air toxics rule was arguably the single most "important regulation driving the cleanup of old dirty coal plants."
The combustion of coal for power generation releases toxics such as mercury into the air. Through precipitation, mercury returns to the earth and changes into a "highly toxic" substance called methylmercury. Methylmercury enters the food chain and contaminates fish that people consume. The chemical is particularly dangerous for pregnant women, who can easily pass it to their fetuses.
The EPA estimates that the mercury and air toxics rule will prevent 11,000 premature deaths, 4,700 heart attacks and 130,000 asthma attacks annually.