Apr. 16, 2020
When coal is burned in the U.S., most of the mercury in the coal no longer spews into our air. This improvement is due to a 2011 federal rule that is now under attack by the Trump administration.
The Mercury and Air Toxics Standards was widely adopted by industry and has proven enormously successful at limiting dangerous air pollution. Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency, however, is determined to defy the old adage: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
The EPA is expected to finalize its gutting of the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards on Apr. 16.
The head of the agency, Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist, is withdrawing the findings that it is “appropriate and necessary” to regulate these power plants’ hazardous emissions. The announcement comes as the country is reeling from the coronavirus pandemic, a respiratory illness that’s caused more than 20,000 deaths in the United States.
Coal-fired power plants are the worst of the worst industrial polluters.
Until the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards came on line, they accounted for half of the total man-made emissions of mercury in America and more than half of all arsenic, hydrochloric acid, hydrogen fluoride, and selenium emissions. They are also among the worst emitters of other toxics, including lead (think Flint, Michigan) and chromium (think Erin Brockovich).
Initially established in late 2011 after decades of effort by Earthjustice and others, the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards became the first set of federal regulations to limit mercury and other air toxics emitted by power plants. It also was the first rule to require meaningful reductions of pollution from many older coal plants that had been allowed to dodge pollution control requirements for decades.
“The idea of the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards is to get all the air toxics out of power plants, not just mercury,” says Earthjustice Attorney Jim Pew, who has been working to clean up air pollution from our nation’s power plants for more than a decade.
“It’s the first rule to take a serious bite out of pollution from old, dirty power plants, which account for more hazardous air pollution than any other industry.”
Once the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards was enacted, the worst emitting power plants had to choose between shutting down or installing pollution control equipment such as baghouses and scrubbers. The results were stunning.
Mercury emissions from power plants dropped by 81.7 percent from 2011 through 2017, according a recent analysis by the Center for American Progress. And, contrary to dire predictions by lobbyists for the power industry, power plants are continuing to operate and the lights remain on.
“The reductions were very significant; everything worked very smoothly,” Pew says. “Right now, the rule is working just fine.”
Murray Energy, which claims to be the “largest underground coal mining company in America,” continued to challenge the standards in court. And now with Andrew Wheeler, Murray Energy’s former lobbyist and current administrator of Trump’s EPA, the agency wants to undermine the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards and let more toxic pollution into the air.
Wheeler is trying to undo the the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards in a particularly sneaky way. Rather than withdrawing the protections openly — a maneuver the courts have already nixed — Wheeler is proposing to declare that controlling coal-fired power plants’ toxic pollution was never “appropriate” in the first place.
His hope, it appears, is that Murray Energy, his former client, will run to court with this declaration and have the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards thrown out.
Under Wheeler, the EPA’s new argument is that the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards is not “appropriate” because its costs outweigh its benefits. But that claim rests on some very dodgy accounting.
First, the EPA considers only the benefits of pollution reduction that have been “monetized” — i.e., reduced to a monetary value. For example, the EPA doesn’t count the benefit of eliminating vast quantities of mercury from our air, water, and fish because those benefits have never been monetized. Likewise, the EPA assigns no value at all to eliminating tons of emissions of lead, arsenic, and chromium emitted by power plants. Instead, the EPA’s new analysis considers only the monetized value of the IQ points it anticipates will be lost by children who are exposed to mercury in freshwater fish.
Second, the EPA dismisses the value of benefits that have been monetized. It is undisputed that the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards also will eliminate the emissions of thousands of tons of fine particulate matter emissions, along with power plants’ emissions of mercury, lead, and other hazardous air pollutants. The EPA has robust data on the health benefits — and the monetary value — of the reduction of particulate matter emissions. It will prevent:
- up to 11,000 premature deaths from respiratory and cardiovascular illness;
- 3,100 emergency room visits for children with asthma;
- more than 250,000 fewer cases of respiratory symptoms and asthma exacerbation in children;
- and 4,700 non-fatal heart attacks.
All that adds up monetarily to $90 billion. The total cost of the rule is about $9 billion — dimes to dollars.
Much of the power plant industry supports the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards as it stands.
Edison Electric Institute, the association that represents all U.S. investor-owned electric companies, and other utilities have written letters to the EPA saying just that.
“They’ve already spent the money to comply, they don’t want a disruption by having the deregulation, and they don’t want the bad actors like Murray Energy to get a competitive advantage from this,” Pew says.
If Wheeler’s proposal could establish dangerous precedent for future regulations. The new rule could create a higher threshold for future regulations by narrowing the range of benefits the agency can consider when devising new rules. This would make it nearly impossible for the EPA to justify new life-saving protections.
“What an amazing effort to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory,” Pew says. “Wheeler’s con game will benefit no one but his former clients and, if successful, it will release tons of toxic pollution into the air and cause thousands of people to die unnecessarily every year.”