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EPA Moves to Restore Authority to Limit Power Plants’ Toxic Air Emissions

Strengthened Mercury and Air Toxics Standards is critical for clean air


Erin Fitzgerald,

Today, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed restoring the legal finding that it is “appropriate and necessary” to regulate power plants’ hazardous air emissions, an important foundation for the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS). Restoring the legal finding also paves the way for EPA to strengthen MATS and ensure that all communities are fully protected from this dangerous pollution.

Under the cover of the COVID-19 pandemic, and despite widespread opposition, former EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler — a former coal lobbyist — reversed the legal finding, based on a bogus cost benefit analysis that economists said had “deep flaws.” The move was meant to entice coal companies to attack MATS in court, which came to pass when Westmoreland Mining Holdings swiftly filed a lawsuit.

Earthjustice clients intervened to block that coal industry maneuver in June of 2020. 

“This action will protect MATS from coal industry court challenges,” said Earthjustice attorney Neil Gormley.  “Now EPA must stay on the offensive in the fight for public health. We look forward to working with the agency as it moves ahead to strengthen MATS and other essential clean air rules.” 

MATS regulates toxic emissions from coal and oil-fired power plants. Since MATS was put in place in 2011, it drastically reduced mercury and other toxic air pollutants, which are linked to breathing illnesses, heart disease, and cancer, among other health impacts. It is estimated that MATS has saved as many as 11,000 lives each year. More progress is needed, however, as power plants are still allowed to emit unlimited quantities of certain harmful pollutants like benzene and dioxins. Plants should be required to further reduce their pollution through stronger pollution controls and more consistent monitoring and maintenance of their equipment.

Quotes from our clients:

“EPA is right to restore the legal underpinning of MATS and can now focus on further reducing this pollution. Despite years of reductions, mercury persists at harmful levels in fish in the Chesapeake Bay watershed,” said Ariel Solaski, litigation staff attorney, Chesapeake Bay Foundation. “It accumulates in the food chain and ultimately jeopardizes the health of people who eat contaminated seafood, especially in communities that rely on self-caught, local fish to feed their families.”

“We applaud the EPA for taking some initial steps toward restoring the fundamental purpose of the clean air act, which is to protect and improve the air that we all breathe,” stated Derf Johnson, staff attorney with the Montana Environmental Information Center. “Now it’s time for the EPA to roll up its sleeves and fix the MATS rule.”

“With today’s announcement, President Biden’s EPA is taking a critical first step in protecting communities — in particular, communities of color — from dangerous, toxic pollution from coal plants,” said Patrick Drupp, deputy legislative director for Climate and Clean Air at Sierra Club. “Communities across the country continue to be saddled with poor air quality. As a result, our families — and especially our children and the elderly — have been burdened with skyrocketing cases of asthma, heart attacks, and premature deaths. President Biden’s EPA must now strengthen the MATS rule. No amount of toxic pollution is acceptable in the air we breathe, especially when there are feasible, cost-effective means of protecting public health.”

EPA’s own analysis underscores the public health benefits of air pollution regulations. Thanks to MATS, mercury pollution has decreased by more than 81%.   

Read this Earthjustice report for more on the history and benefits of MATS. 

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