Environment, Trump Administration

EPA undermines mercury, air toxics rules and no one’s happy except coal companies

Duke Energy’s coal-fired power plant in Asheville in 2014; the utility has since retired that facility and seven others in North Carolina, retrofitting them as natural gas units. (Photo: Greenpeace)

Duke Energy is among many of the nation’s utilities that oppose the EPA’s latest gutting of air pollution rules, which discount health benefits of the regulations while amplifying the economic ones.

Known as MATS — Mercury and Air Toxics Standards — the rule regulates emissions of the potent neurotoxin mercury and other hazardous air pollutants from coal- and oil-fired power plants.

Children and developing fetuses are particularly vulnerable to mercury’s toxic effects. Exposure can permanently harm cognitive thinking, memory, attention, language, fine motor skills, and visual spatial skills.

While the EPA revisions don’t explicitly overturn MATS, they change the way the agency will calculate the costs and benefits of it — and future ones. This  will accomplish the same goal of relaxing environmental regulations.

“It’s very sinister,” said Carol Browner, former EPA administrator from 1993 to 2001. She now serves as chairwoman of the League of Conservation Voters. “They’re counting every single cost, but ignoring the fact that costs come down because innovation solves the problems more cheaply.”

When enacting or amending a rule, EPA is required to account in detail the public health, environmental and economic costs of a rule, and weigh them against those respective benefits. But the EPA’s new changes allow it to ignore some scientifically proven public health benefits, such as avoided heart attacks, strokes and asthma attacks. That will distort the cost-benefit analysis.

From 2011 to 2017, mercury emissions decreased 81% because of the MATS rule.

Duke Energy spokesman Philip Sgro told Policy Watch that the utility has invested billions of dollars to comply with the MATS rule, “and we support keeping the MATS rule in place. Our investments have paid off greatly, with the company reducing mercury emissions by 95% since 2002. Using some of the same technologies, we have also reduced sulfur dioxide emissions by 96% and nitrogen oxides by 74% since 2005.”

The EPA’s current revisions were prompted by a 2015 US Supreme Court decision that stated the agency had not fully considered the costs to industry in crafting the mercury rule. The Obama administration recalculated the costs — at roughly $9.6 billion annually — and reissued the rule in 2016.

In a press release, the EPA said the new revisions correct the alleged flaws in the 2016 rule.

Joe Aldy, a professor of the Practice of Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, said the EPA has ignored entire categories of major health benefits of the mercury rule, such as the number of avoided heart attacks — 4,700 per year. “The EPA zeroed this out,” Aldy said.

Public health experts have estimated the MATS rule has also prevented 11,000 premature deaths, 130,000 asthma attacks and 5,700 emergency room visits.

Since emissions control technology is already in place, the beneficiaries of the new action are coal companies and producers. Not coincidentally, EPA Adminstrator Andrew Wheeler previously worked as a coal lobbyist.

“This is disgraceful on part of EPA,” Browner said. “It’s nothing other than a giveaway to big polluters.”

The rollback also presents environmental justice issues. Dominique Browning, co-founder and director of Moms Clean Air Force, said that 68% of Black people live within 30 miles of a coal fired plant. Latino children are twice as likely to die from an asthma attack as white children.

Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, noted that the rollback is one of many the EPA has enacted during the COVID-19 pandemic. Earlier this month, the agency unraveled regulations on tailpipe emissions.

“What they’re doing on MATS is dismantling how agency is doing its business,” Browner said. “They’re doing severe damage to decision-making of the agency: changes in cost-benefits, changes in enforcement. They don’t stop.”

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