ThinkProgress

EPA to roll back mercury rule in a boon to coal industry and blow to human health

The Longview Power Plant, a coal-fired plant, stands on August 21, 2018 in Maidsville, West Virginia. CREDIT: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The Trump administration is preparing to weaken a major environmental regulation targeting the toxic chemical mercury. The proposed change will heavily weigh costs to the industries the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is meant to regulate while largely ignoring dangers to human health.

A proposal from the EPA expected to head to the White House in coming days would greatly reduce current mercury regulations in a boon to coal-burning power plants.

Two senior officials told the Washington Post that the new proposed rule would target the Obama administration’s 2011 Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS), which limits mercury emissions from power plants.

Some limits on mercury emissions would still exist but public health data would no longer be a core consideration. Meanwhile the costs to industry would be taken into account, in a severe blow to the Obama-era regulations.

The rollback comes following years of lobbying from the coal industry. The Trump administration has declined to discuss the rule’s specifics but officials are touting the rollback as a victory for U.S. coal.

“The MATS Rule was an egregious example of the Obama administration’s indifference toward required cost benefit analysis,” said EPA spokesperson John Konkus in a statement on Sunday. “EPA knows these issues are of importance to the regulated community and the public at large and is committed to a thoughtful and transparent regulatory process in addressing them.”

Current rules require the EPA to weigh the health benefits associated with reducing pollutants like mercury, something that has factored heavily into the agency’s limitations on coal plants.

Exposure to mercury can cause brain damage, along with damage to the nervous system and to both fetal and child development. It took decades and millions of dollars for the EPA to develop the 2011 standards, despite receiving congressional approval to regulate toxic metals associated with coal-burning in the 1990s.

The EPA estimated at the time of its release that the Obama-era rule would cost the coal industry some $9.6 billion in compliance fees. However, the agency also emphasized that up to 11,000 premature deaths could be prevented and that $37 billion to $90 billion in health and work costs could be saved as a result of the measure. The EPA said some 540,000 missed work or sick days would also be avoided.

Ongoing litigation has seen numerous legal challenges mounted against the rule since 2012, when the standards were allowed to take effect. In 2014, Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh — President Donald Trump’s current Supreme Court nominee — notably argued in a dissent from his D.C. Circuit colleagues that it was “unreasonable” for the EPA not to consider the economic cost of the regulation.

The Trump administration has similarly argued that line, which is in keeping with the stance of the wider coal industry.

Robert E. Murray, who heads Murray Energy Corp., requested a rollback of the mercury regulations in a “wish list” given to Energy Secretary Rick Perry following Trump’s election.

Acting EPA head Andrew Wheeler previously worked for Murray as a lobbyist and the coal baron himself is a prominent Trump donor. William Wehrum, who oversees clean air policy at the EPA, has long supported efforts undercutting rules like the mercury standards.

Despite resistance, as of 2018 the coal industry has largely fallen in line with the current EPA regulations. Many companies have already invested in technology and other updates in order to comply with the rules. Environmental advocates have underscored that the new push to roll back the mercury standards flies in the face of those efforts and will have ramifications for human health.

This latest rollback continues a trend, as Trump administration officials have repeatedly relaxed and gutted environmental regulations meant to reign in the industries overseen by the EPA. In August, the EPA proposed a new rule to replace the Clean Power Plan, which targets coal plant carbon dioxide emissions. The White House has also proposed bailing out struggling coal and nuclear power plants in an effort to save those industries.