U.S. EPA today announced yet another regulatory rollback holiday gift to the coal industry. While the country is distracted by recycling gift boxes and post-holiday sales, EPA quietly proposed to find that it is not “appropriate” to regulate the toxic air emissions from the nation’s coal- and oil-fired power plants. The proposal reverses a decades-old finding that has been reaffirmed by the Agency twice previously. It also opens to attack the 2012 Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) – already complied with by the industry – controlling emissions of power-plant mercury and some 80 other highly dangerous pollutants directly linked to respiratory diseases, neurological damage, and cancer.
Mercury, for example, causes an array of neurological disorders, and is also linked to adverse cardiovascular effects, endocrine disruption, and compromised immune systems. Primary human (and other mammal and bird) exposure is through consumption of mercury-contaminated fish. U.S. power plants made up 48 percent of all domestic mercury emissions, before MATS was put in place. But with MATS in place, significant air emissions reductions (85% reductions in mercury, e.g.), and corresponding public health and environmental benefits have been achieved at a fraction of the originally estimated cost of the MATS rule.
The Agency claims to be responding to a Supreme Court ruling from 2014, but in fact EPA previously finalized an action in 2016 reaffirming the decision to regulate. “What has changed now,” said Ann Weeks, CATF’s Legal Director, “is the administration’s attitude towards public health, and towards the coal industry. EPA proposes to disregard many of the important public benefits that result from controlling all the toxic air emissions from this industry.”
Scientific work completed and released since MATS was finalized allow additional quantification of MATS benefits that was not possible in 2012. For example, the quantified and monetized benefits of MATS mercury reductions alone (not including the 80 or more other toxic metals, acid gases, and organic pollutants emitted by these plants), are now estimated at several billions of dollars each year. By contrast, EPA still relies on a 2010 analysis of only some of those benefits that quantifies only $4-6 million in annual mercury benefits. In addition to ignoring the new work on mercury benefits, EPA proposes not to count at all the benefits of other aspects of the rule, which significantly reduce emissions of pollution that causes severe respiratory illnesses and even premature deaths.
“Make no mistake, this is not about seasonal goodwill,” Weeks continued. “Their proposal highlights this Administration’s indifference to the health and well-being of our country’s most vulnerable citizens: our children, low income folks who live closest to coal-fired power plants, and indigenous people who rely on fish as a major part of their culture or as an inexpensive protein source.”
“To put it more succinctly, Weeks concluded, “On the fourth day of Christmas, Andy Wheeler gave to us: four coughing lungs, three smoking chimneys, two lumps of coal and a bright shiny present for Murray Energy.”