EPA Reaffirms Mercury and Air Toxics Standards Will Save Lives

Reducing mercury and air toxins emissions has saved more than 11,000 lives and a stronger standard could prevent even more deaths


Erin Fitzgerald, efitzgerald@earthjustice.org

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) today took final action to reaffirm it is necessary and appropriate to require coal-fired and oil-fired power plants — some of the nation’s largest and most dangerous polluters — to reduce their toxic emissions.

Today’s action reverses a Trump-era rule that sought to undermine the EPA’s Mercury and Air-Toxics Standards (MATS) by withdrawing previous agency findings that limiting toxic emissions from power plants is “appropriate.” The MATS rule, which has been in place since 2012, has reduced mercury emissions by 86% from 2010 levels. Since 2016 when every power plant came into compliance, the MATS rule has prevented between 4,200 and 11,000 premature deaths, 4,700 non-fatal heart attacks, 2,600 hospitalizations for respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, and 540,000 lost workdays every year.

“Coal-fired and oil-fired power plants are among the worst of the worst polluters, and their toxic emissions fall hardest on communities of color and low-income communities,” said Earthjustice Attorney Jim Pew. “Of course it is appropriate to reduce their pollution; we welcome EPA’s action today and we encourage EPA to finish the job and make the MATS rule stronger and more protective.”

Exposure to mercury, even in small amounts, can cause serious health problems. The toxic air pollutant is especially harmful to pregnant people as it causes permanent brain damage to developing fetuses, babies, and young children. People can be exposed to mercury pollution through the air, and through waterways, and the fish we eat.

Requiring polluters to clean up the air results in more lives saved. Recent modeling from Harvard University shows that reductions in mercury emissions have led to as many as 5,600 fewer babies born with unsafe mercury exposure levels; 380,000 fewer people with heart disease; 160,000 fewer cardiovascular-related deaths; and nearly $1.5 billion saved in public health costs associated with cardiovascular mortality.

Despite progress made to clean them up, power plants are still the nation’s largest emitter of mercury and hazardous air pollutants. The agency must strengthen powerplant standards to further protect Americans from breathing in hazardous air.

EPA can strengthen the rule by reconsidering the previous administration’s “do-nothing” technology and risk review and requiring additional pollution reductions that achieve important public health benefits. People living in communities neighboring polluters urgently need EPA to exercise its authority to set strong limits on power plants’ toxic pollution that significantly reduce cumulative exposures, neurocognitive health impacts, and cardiovascular impacts. EPA’s action today appropriately recognizes the importance of environmental justice to its decision. Now, the agency should follow through by taking strong steps to reduce the environmental injustice that people in communities of color and low income communities have suffered for decades as a result of its failure to establish adequate health and safety protections in the past. While the EPA has taken a step in the right direction in restoring the appropriate and necessary finding for the MATS rule, the agency must now set even stronger limits to fully clean up mercury and other toxic air pollution that harms people and the environment.

Quotes from Clients and Partners:

“There is no excuse for lax regulation of a substance as harmful as mercury, let alone the other dangerous pollutants that facilities burning coal release,” said Anne Hedges with the Montana Environmental Information Center. “Montana has over a hundred rivers and lakes under fish advisory because of mercury pollution alone. Limiting pollution from some of the largest sources in the nation is not only necessary and appropriate, but also essential to protect the health and well-being of people and wildlife. Today’s decision is a step in the right direction.”

“Mercury is the most common metal pollutant in Bay waters. Reducing levels of this dangerous neurotoxin is important to restoring the Bay and its tributaries and protecting the health of this region’s 18 million residents,” said Chesapeake Bay Foundation Litigation Staff Attorney Ariel Solaski. “This is especially true for our children and people who regularly eat locally caught fish, many of whom live in communities already overburdened with multiple environmental and health threats. We now urge the agency to act quickly and ambitiously to strengthen the current, outdated limits.”

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