In possibly the most cynical move to date by the Trump Administration in its efforts to revive the flagging coal industry, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler today signed a final rule reversing a twenty-year old finding that it is “appropriate” under the Clean Air Act to regulate mercury and other airborne toxics from coal-fired power plants—the largest industrial source of those harmful pollutants in the United States.
Today’s action follows closely on the heels of Tuesday’s announcement by Mr. Wheeler that he would ignore the recommendations of EPA’s own scientists, instead proposing not to strengthen the ambient air standards for deadly fine particulates – which are released as a result of coal burning in a power plant, among other sources. Of course, all of this is taking place against the backdrop of the global COVID-19 pandemic, which threatens the respiratory systems of millions of Americans, and has already killed almost 30,000 people in this country.
The Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) rule requiring reductions in those hazardous pollutants has been in effect since 2012, was upheld by the Supreme Court in 2014, and has been fully implemented since 2016, meaning that the emissions control measures required to comply with the rule have been in place, and installed and operating for years. EPA’s own analysis shows that power plant air toxics have been reduced by 96 percent since MATS was implemented and that, as a result, 11,000 premature deaths are avoided per year. Today’s action, however, potentially opens the door to further attacks by coal baron Bob Murray of Murray Energy—now in bankruptcy—whose court challenge to the vitality of the 2016 update to the “appropriateness” determination is still pending.
The utility industry, including Edison Electric Institute (EEI), the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA), and American Public Power Association, have all urged EPA not to finalize any changes that could threaten the vitality of the MATS rule. That is because their member utilities are recovering the costs of installing the emission controls and other changes needed to meet the standards. In fact, power companies have warned the Administration that any action that threatens the MATS rule might force them to turn off air toxics controls, raising the specter of wasted ratepayer money already spent to meet MATS, not to mention increased toxic emissions leading to more cardiopulmonary illnesses and deaths.
“Only in this upside-down Trumpian world could EPA consider already-implemented controls on extremely deadly pollution from coal-fired power plants not ‘appropriate,’” said Ann Weeks, Legal Director of Clean Air Task Force. “If today’s action ultimately spurs challenges to the MATS, we could see coal-fired power plants actually turning off scrubbers and other lifesaving air pollution controls that have been installed and paid for to meet MATS, just so Trump’s coal industry cronies can sell a few more tons of coal. Such an outcome is unconscionable, particularly at a time when our nation and the globe battle the COVID-19 pandemic, which of course is a serious respiratory illness. Putting anyone, but particularly the vulnerable, further at risk of additional toxic air pollution exposure at this time is reprehensible.”
And there is no rational support for doing so. EPA’s rule is flawed and biased in its consideration of both the costs of MATS and its benefits, relying on old, incorrect data and considering the costs and benefits of only one of the more than 80 air toxics emitted by coal- and oil-fired power plants. EPA gives no weight at all to the public health benefits of controlling those other air toxics, including reductions in asthma attacks, heart attacks, and premature mortality caused by air pollution. MATS is not only appropriate and necessary, but has been a tremendous success, as toxic air pollutant emissions from regulated power plants have been significantly reduced, with no perceptible increase in costs to the public.