EPA announces plan to roll back mercury rules in power plants

A coal-fired power plant is silhouetted against the morning sun in Glenrock, Wyo.
(J. David Ake / Associated Press)

The Trump administration quietly proposed rolling back emissions standards for coal and oil generated power plants in a move that could alter how and whether the government monitors and controls air and water pollution.

The proposed ruling strikes at the economic analysis the agency uses to establish regulations, giving less weight to potential health benefits of air pollution restrictions and more to costs incurred by industry.

The announcement, issued Friday amid the government shutdown, singles out a 2011 Obama administration ruling designed to curtail mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants. It suggests the costs to industry of cutting mercury emissions from power plants “dwarfs” any monetary benefits gained by the public.


That regulation, known as the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, has reduced mercury emissions by roughly 80% since it was established, according to research, including the EPA’s own analyses.

Mercury is a neurotoxin emitted during the burning of coal and is associated with brain and nervous-system damage in developing children, leading to lower IQs and motor system problems.

“The Trump administration is changing 20 years of precedence on the ground rules of how cost/benefit analyses are done on regulations,” said Chris Frey, professor of environmental engineering at North Carolina State University, and former chair of the EPA’s Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee.

He said the agency has always included additional, or ancillary, health benefits when evaluating regulations. For instance, when controlling mercury emissions from a power plant, whether by filtration or other means, other pollutants are also incidentally reduced — including fine particulate air pollution and other metals.

In the EPA’s original mercury ruling, in 2012, it calculated that broader pollution reductions brought about by the new standard would prevent roughly 11,000 premature deaths.

The new plan, signed Thursday by EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, would limit the scope to just the target pollutant, in this case mercury, and not the cumulative reduction in pollutionsuch a regulation would cause , said Frey.


“It doesn’t make any sense,” said Betsy Southerland, former director of science and technology in the agency’s Office of Water. “We know what’s in the air before it gets filtered, and what comes out the other side. Why wouldn’t you include those other pollutants?”

When the Obama administration established its mercury ruling, it suggested there would be roughly $6 million in direct health benefits from reducing mercury. It then argued there would be another $80 billion accrued in terms of lives saved by the additional pollution reduction, including particulate matter, lead and arsenic.

It also acknowledged the difficulty of assigning price tags to benefits. For instance, said Southerland, how does one quantify a loss in IQ points to exposed children or fetuses? Or a developmental delay in a child’s motor skills?

Because of these concerns, in addition to submitting a cost-benefit analysis, the Obama administration argued that the Clean Air Act requires Congress to “protect the most sensitive populations” from the harms of hazardous pollutants and therefore should not rely solely on a cost-benefit analysis, which can’t quantify the intangibles.

The new proposed ruling rejects that idea, arguing that the $18 billion that industry has invested to comply with the ruling “dwarfs” the $4 million to $6 million in health benefits from mercury reductions.

Some members of the coal mining industry cheered the shift.

“We welcome the agency’s proposal to revisit what stands as perhaps the largest regulatory accounting fraud perpetrated on American consumers,” said Hal Quinn, President and CEO of the National Mining Association, a coal industry association, in a statement.


Critics say the ruling is nothing more than a plan by the agency to narrow the scope of cost-benefit analyses at the expense of protecting public health.

“It really flies in the face of five decades of precedence and science,” said Frey. “I think it’s clear this current administration is not only showing negligence on protecting the public’s health, but is becoming a threat to it.”

The public will have 60 days to comment on the ruling, once it is published in the Federal Register. With the government shut-down, it is unclear when that posting will be made.

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