US PRESIDENT Donald Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has proposed to change the way that the health benefits from reducing mercury emissions from coal- and oil-fired plants are calculated, saying that it is not “appropriate and necessary” to regulate hazardous air pollutants.
The Mercury and Air Toxic Standards (MATS) were created by the EPA under the Obama administration in 2011 and came into effect in 2012. The regulations required plants to reduce mercury and other pollutants by over 90% in five years and since the rule was created, mercury emissions have dropped by 80–90%. The calculated cost to coal and oil plants for implementing pollution controls was US$7.4bn–9.6bn/y. Mercury is a neurotoxin that can damage the nervous system and is particularly harmful to young children as it can cause developmental problems. Coal-fired plants are the biggest emitter of mercury in the US and accounted for 48% of mercury emissions in 2015.
The health benefits from cutting mercury alone were calculated at US$4m–6m/y and the saving from co-benefits was estimated at US$37bn–90bn/y. The co-benefits are the reductions in heart and lung problems due to cutting the emissions of other hazardous air pollutants (HAPs), such as soot and nitrogen dioxide, which comes as a side effect of reducing mercury. The EPA calculated that each year this would prevent between 4,200–11,000 premature deaths, 4,700 heart attacks, and 130,000 asthma attacks.
The EPA under the Trump administration proposed changes to MATS on 28 December that would recalculate the cost of the health benefits. The revised health estimates don’t include co-benefits and therefore conclude that the rules imposed by the Obama administration are too costly to industry. The EPA said in a statement that “this action proposes to correct flaws in [earlier EPA documentation] and proposes to make a revised determination that it is not appropriate and necessary to regulate HAP emissions from coal- and oil-fired power plants.”
Harold Wimmer, national president and CEO of the American Lung Association, said: “EPA's proposal to undermine the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards is one of its most dangerous efforts yet. The MATS are already fully implemented, with significant health benefits including preventing up to 11,000 premature deaths each year and a dramatic reduction of mercury pollution, a potent neurotoxin that causes brain damage in babies. Additionally, the MATS have been extremely effective in limiting emissions of known carcinogens such as arsenic, chromium and nickel, as well as toxic acid gases that form particle pollution, which causes asthma attacks, heart attacks and premature death.”
The majority of utilities companies have already made the changes required by MATS by investing in equipment such as scrubbers. An open letter by trade groups and unions to the EPA in July 2018 stated that any change in the rules would be of no benefit because they have already spent an estimated US$18bn to comply since 2012.
In the 2018 proposal, the EPA quotes figures of US$4m–6m/y in health benefits from just cutting mercury emissions (and not including the co-benefits), which are the same as those given in the 2011 MATS text. However, research performed since 2011 has shown that there are more pathways of mercury exposure and additional health effects than previously thought, and that the economic health benefits of controlling mercury emissions are in the order of billions rather than millions.
In supplementary findings to the MATS rule in 2016, the EPA itself said that “the EPA acknowledges the submission of new research … that further corroborates the EPA's conclusion that the HAP benefits are underestimated in the MATS regulatory impact analysis.” In 2017, researchers from the Harvard T.H. Chan school of public health and the University of Southern Denmark published work detailing how the costs of exposure to mercury in the US are actually US$4.8bn/y.
Hal Quinn, president and CEO of the National Mining Association, welcomed the EPA’s revised cost estimates. “We welcome the agency’s proposal to revisit what stands as perhaps the largest regulatory accounting fraud perpetrated on American consumers. By suppressing the real costs while double-counting potential benefits, the last administration made American households and businesses pay US$960 in exchange for 60 cents in potential benefits. Surely the EPA will now understand that no rational person would voluntarily agree to such a massively unbalanced arrangement.”
The EPA’s proposal will leave the current mercury restrictions in place but will evaluate if the regulations are needed. According to The New York Times, revising the justifications will allow coal mining companies to challenge the rules in court. If the EPA deems that the mercury regulations aren’t needed, it will be a victory for the coal industry, in particular Robert Murray, CEO of coal mining company Murray Energy. Murray Energy sued the EPA over the Obama-era regulations, and after Trump’s inauguration, Murray requested that the Trump administration roll back the rule along with other environmental protection laws.
Acting EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler, a former coal industry lobbyist who previously represented Murray, told The Washington Post in October: “I just think it’s a little fuzzy math when you say, ‘Reduce mercury and we have all these other benefits over here,’ as the shiny object."
According to Kathleen Rest, executive director of the Union of Concerned Scientists, revising the rules will set a dangerous precedent that could undermine future public health and environment protections.
Fred Krupp, president of non-profit environmental group Environmental Defense Fund, said: “Trump’s EPA claims they aren’t undermining the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards themselves, they’re just reconsidering the basis for them. No one can truthfully claim they are demolishing the foundation of a building but they still expect the building to stand.”
Tom Carper, democrat senator for Delaware, said: “With this action, the EPA is also setting a dangerous precedent that a federal agency – charged with protecting the environment and public health – will no longer factor in all the clear health, environmental, and economics benefits of clean air polices, such as reducing cancer and birth defects. With this proposal, the EPA has decided to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, and all Americans will suffer as a result.”
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