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Trump’s EPA Considers Reversal of Limits on Toxic Air Pollution

Environmental and health groups will continue the fight to protect public health
The Cheswick coal-fired power plant in Pennsylvania. It is among the hundreds of power plants likely covered by the Mercury & Air Toxics Standards.

The Cheswick coal-fired power plant in Pennsylvania. It is among the hundreds of power plants likely covered by the Mercury & Air Toxics Standards.

Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice
April 18, 2017
Washington, D.C. —

Today, the U.S. Environmental Protect Agency notified attorneys involved in a court battle over protections from the toxic emissions of coal-fired power plants that it would seek a delay in federal court to consider reversing the EPA’s decision under the Obama administration to limit these emissions.

The EPA, in an email, announced plans to file a motion at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit asking to delay oral arguments in its defense of the Mercury and Air Toxics rule from polluters and allied states.

“Coal-fired power plants are the nation’s worst polluters by far. They spew enormous amounts of mercury, arsenic, and lead into our air, and that pollution harms everyone and particularly children, who are the most vulnerable among us,” said Earthjustice Attorney James Pew.  “These limits on power plant pollution, which have now been in place for two years, have cut power plants’ emissions and greatly reduced the threat to kids’ health and development. Scrapping them now would bring poisons back into kids’ lungs, blood, and brains and will cause thousands of people to die—prematurely and unnecessarily—from breathing in power plants’ soot pollution.”

Pew thinks that it would break the law to eliminate the rule. “Overturning that rule now would be flagrantly illegal,” Pew said. “The Clean Air Act required these limits to be put in place more than a decade ago. If EPA wishes to deregulate power plants it needs to show that their emissions are safe. They are far from safe. They kill thousands of people each year.”

Anne Havemann, general counsel at Chesapeake Climate Action Network, said: "It is unconscionable that Scott Pruitt would even consider scrapping limits on toxic pollution from coal-fired power plants. The EPA's job is to protect public health and the environment, which no doubt includes limiting the arsenic, mercury, and other toxic materials that coal plants emit. We implore the EPA to do its job protecting American families, not coal companies' bottom line."

Earthjustice plans to call on the federal court to reject EPA’s motion.

Two years ago the Supreme Court criticized EPA for basing its decision to control power plants’ toxic pollution exclusively on the adverse health effects they cause. It rejected calls by the coal industry to throw the limits out, but directed the agency to consider their costs. Last year, the agency explained in detail that the benefits of these health protections far outweigh the costs. A number of power companies and States that are still dissatisfied challenged that decision as well. Among them was Oklahoma, then represented by Pruitt. Oral argument on their challenge is scheduled for May 18, and it is this argument that Pruitt seeks to delay.

Earthjustice represents the NAACP, the Sierra Club, Clean Air Council, the Environmental Integrity Project and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation in the case.

“EPA’s action today is unacceptable,” said Patton Dycus, a senior attorney at the Environmental Integrity Project. “The agency should be focused on complying with the Clean Air Act and reducing toxic air pollution from power plants—not figuring out ways to make it easier and cheaper for big polluters to foul our air and water.”

"This is another dangerous ploy by the Trump administration to try and ignore the important advice of doctors and medical scientists in order to placate polluters intent on spewing toxins into our communities without consequence,” said Bruce Nilles, Senior Director of Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign. “These standards have massive health benefits that far outweigh any costs to industry, including the prevention of 11,000 premature deaths, more than 100,000 asthma and heart attacks each year, and saving taxpayers roughly $90 billion in healthcare costs annually. Trump's move to try and repeal it, despite its massive benefits and near universal adoption by coal plant owners already, is the clearest sign yet that he doesn't care about who coal companies hurt, only that they profit from it."

According to the EPA’s science review, the Mercury Air Toxics Standard (MATS) would annually prevent up to 11,000 premature deaths, nearly 5,000 heart attacks and 130,000 asthma attacks, and more than 540,000 missed days of work days. It would also protect babies and children from exposures to mercury than can damage their ability to develop and learn. The EPA has estimated that every year, more than 300,000 newborns face elevated risk of learning disabilities due to exposure to mercury in the womb.

It took decades for EPA to establish a MATS rule.

Jim Schermbeck, director of Downwinders at Risk said: "As far my board and I are aware, there are no alternative facts to how toxic mercury and lead are, and no reasons to further slow down an already tortoise-like crawl to protect the public from exposure to them. President Trump accused the Syrian government of poisoning its own people after seeing photographs of its victims. Perhaps he needs to see the photos of the downwind victims of cancer and birth defects that toxic pollution leaves behind to understand his EPA is doing the same thing to Americans in slow motion."

“Today’s move belies the claims Scott Pruitt made in his confirmation hearings and in the press that he wants to protect people from conventional pollutants. In reality, he seeks not only to abandon EPA’s work to control global warming, but also to give polluters a blank check to poison the nation’s children.”

“Pruitt is being consistent with this record of disdain for the environment and public health. Scrapping these rules would confirm that he is not interested in protecting kids’ health or the environment, but continues to serve only the corporate polluters who put him in power and contributed so extensively to his political advancement.”

“Earthjustice has fought for decades to protect kids and families from the poisons that coal-fired power plants put in their air, water, and food. We will fight Scott Pruitt’s attempt to strip these protections away.”

Less than two weeks ago, the EPA filed a motion with the federal courts asking to delay oral arguments in its defense of the 2015 ozone standard. Earthjustice opposed the delay and will continue fighting for implementation of that standard.