Regulations Keeping Toxic Heavy Metals Out Of The Air Are Upheld

Smoke billows from smokestacks near Emmett, Kansas. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, File)
Smoke billows from smokestacks near Emmett, Kansas. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, File)

Clean air advocates got a major win Tuesday, after a court of appeals ruled that the first U.S. regulations limiting toxic heavy metal emissions from power plants will be upheld as the Environmental Protection Agency fine tunes the rule.

On Tuesday, the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit said the EPA can enforce the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, a 2011 law that limits the emissions of mercury, arsenic and other metals that the agency says can cause health problems like cancer in adults and children.

“The public, I think, can rest easy knowing that these protections will [remain] in place,” said Sanjay Narayan, the Sierra Club’s managing attorney, in an interview with ThinkProgress.

The decision comes some six months after the Supreme Court ruled in a narrow decision that when the EPA developed the law — commonly called MATS — it failed to consider how much the new standards would cost the power industry. The Supreme Court didn’t invalidate the rule — it instead sent it back to the D.C. Circuit court for further consideration. If the D.C. Circuit, which had already upheld the law, had done otherwise, the EPA could’ve been forced to go back to the drawing board.


That scenario is no longer a possibility, which doesn’t mean that the rule is save from further litigation. It is widely expected that standards will come under attack again. Meanwhile however, the EPA says that most power plants are already operating controls to limits these toxic emissions, and Narayan noted that the power industry in general is set to fulfill the rules by next year’s final deadline.

Coal- and oil-fired power plants are the largest industrial sources of toxic air in the United Sates. Most of the arsenic, acid gases, sulfur dioxide and mercury in the atmosphere comes from power plants, according to the EPA. Power plants are responsible for 50 percent of all U.S. emissions of mercury.

The listed representative of the Utility Air Regulatory Group — which, along with the National Mining Association (NMA) and multiple states, petitioned the Supreme Court to look at the rule — didn’t reply to a request for comment by deadline. For the National Mining Association though, the decision wasn’t surprising.

“This ruling wasn’t unexpected given the deference that the D.C. appeals court shows to regulatory agencies,” said Luke Popovich, a spokesperson for the NMA, via email. “What’s important here is that the EPA, notwithstanding this decision, must show it has adequately considered costs, given the destruction this rule caused to power plants and the related costs that were never considered by EPA even as the rule was thrown back at the agency for a re-do.”

The EPA, for its part, said it was pleased with the decision. “These practical and achievable standards are already cutting pollution from power plants that will save thousands of lives each year and prevent heart and asthma attacks,” said EPA Press Secretary Melissa J. Harrison, in a statement. “The standards also slash emissions of the neurotoxin mercury, which can impair children’s ability to learn.”


For every dollar spent to make these emission cuts, the public is receiving up to $9 in health benefits, according to the EPA. The upheld standards will moreover prevent up to 11,000 premature deaths, 4,700 heart attacks, and 130,000 asthma attacks every year, the agency says.

The EPA expects to issue its final cost consideration as requested by the Supreme Court in April 2016. A draft has already been issued late last month, and in it the EPA finds that the total cost of adhering to MATS was between 2.7 to 3.5 percent of annual electricity sales from 2000 to 2011 — a small fraction of power sector sales.