EPA takes aim at Obama-era regulation of mercury at coal plants

Gwen Vasquez
December 31, 2018

Babies developing in the womb and young children are especially at risk.

On Friday, the EPA said the 2011 rule will stay in place. "A proper consideration of costs under section 112 (n) of the Clean Air Act demonstrates that the total projected costs of compliance with the MATS [Mercury and Air toxic Standards] rule ($7.4 to $9.6 billion annually) dwarfs the monetized HAP benefits of the rule ($4 to $6 million annually)".

If adopted, the change would prevent regulators from calculating positive health effects - known as "co-benefits" - that come from reducing pollutants other than those being targeted. It said the standards have markedly reduced mercury in the environment and improved public health.

But the new EPA finding would conclude it's not "appropriate" for the agency to regulate the toxic emissions.

"We should not limit ourselves in the ongoing fight against this risky pollutant", said mercury expert Celia Chen of the Dartmouth Toxic Metals Superfund Research Program.

"EPA has managed to walk a very fine line", said Jeffrey Holmstead, a partner at the firm Bracewell who represents several utilities and who headed the agency's air and radiation office under President George W. Bush. "Regulators need the tools to strengthen mercury controls in the future if needed", she said.

"Once again, the Trump administration is acting in a way that will adversely affect the health and safety of those living from coast to coast".

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Environmental groups say federal and state limits have helped cut mercury emissions from power plants by 85 percent since 2006.

In that letter they also asked the Trump administration's EPA to leave the existing standards in place. That's because it also costs money to continue operating that equipment.

Janet McCabe, a former air-quality official in the Obama administration's EPA, called the proposal part of "the quiet dismantling of the regulatory framework" for the federal government's environmental protections.

The 2011 Obama administration rule led to what electric utilities say was an $18 billion clean-up of mercury and other toxins from the smokestacks of coal-fired power plants.

But the coal industry has blamed the MATS rules for killing the power plants it sells to. The federal Energy Information Administration says US coal consumption in 2018 is expected to be at its lowest level in almost four decades.

Trump's industry allies, including Robert Murray, CEO of private coal mining giant Murray Energy Corp, had complained that the MATS rule contributed to the demise of the coal business by triggering hundreds of coal-fired power plant shutdowns and driving coal demand to its lowest in decades.

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