WASHINGTON – Despite bipartisan opposition in Congress, and from environmentalists and the entire electric utility industry, the Environmental Protection Agency today is expected to dramatically weaken federal air pollution standards the agency’s own scientists had estimated would prevent thousands of heart and asthma attacks, and deaths, each year.
The Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, enacted in 2011, during the Obama administration, required electric utilities that burn coal and oil to install technologies to cut emissions of mercury and other heavy metal air pollutants, including arsenic.
Utilities estimated the cost of the pollution-trapping equipment at around $18 billion. But it was money well spent: The rule had an almost immediate impact on air quality with a 70 percent drop in mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants.
Source: Center for American Progress
The states that saw the most significant decreases in mercury emissions between 2011 and 2017 include those that rely heavily on electricity generated from coal-fired power plants, including Pennsylvania, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan and Missouri.
Source: Center for American Progress
“It’s beyond stupid to repeal a rule that has contributed so much to cleaner air and protecting children from a potent neurotoxin,” said EWG President Ken Cook. “The Trump EPA is actively working against the American people and their health and safety – and there’s no clearer example than this reckless decision made at the behest of a few coal industry executives.”
Until the Obama administration added the mercury rule, there were no federal standards on power plants’ emissions of toxic air pollutants. The EPA estimated the rule would prevent roughly 11,000 premature deaths, 4,700 heart attacks and 130,000 asthma attacks each year. To justify the repeal, the Trump EPA severely devalued the health benefits the agency had calculated.
Major players in the electric power sector have called on the Trump administration to leave the current rule untouched.
Since the EPA announced plans to repeal the mercury rule, the agency has received nearly half a million public comments, overwhelmingly opposed to the decision. Major players in the electricity sector also opposed the repeal, including the Edison Electric Institute and the American Power Association.
In comments to the EPA, one of the nation’s biggest utilities, Exelon, said any attempt to gut it is “an action that is entirely unnecessary, unreasonable, and universally opposed by the power generation sector.” In February, an Exelon spokesman told The Washington Post, “The sector has gotten so much cleaner as a result of this rule.”
“We’re happy to comply with this rule,” Scott Weaver, director of air quality at American Electric Power, told the Post. “Let sleeping dogs lie, so to speak.”
Mercury can cause toxic effects to the immune, nervous and digestive systems, as well as on the lungs and kidneys.
Millions of Americans with compromised immune systems and respiratory problems are at far greater risk of dying from COVID-19, according to a new study by a team of disease experts from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
In addition to long-term heart and respiratory system damage, mercury emissions pose other dangers.
Methylmercury, a byproduct of burning coal, is a potent neurotoxin and can seriously harm the brain and nervous systems of infants and children. Mercury in the air condenses and gets into waterways and the ocean, where it concentrates in the marine food chain. Mercury concentrations are highest in larger fish, like tuna, marlin, halibut and sea bass.
Women who are pregnant and consume seafood with high mercury levels, like sushi, can expose the developing fetus to even higher concentrations than what’s in the mother’s blood. Exposure to mercury during pregnancy and childhood can cause lifelong deficits in learning, memory and reaction times.
Under the final rule change, the Trump administration has declared it is not “appropriate or necessary” for the EPA to reduce toxic pollutants from power plants, since utilities are required to and have complied with the rule since it went into effect in 2011.
In December, members of the EPA’s Science Advisory Board, most of whom are Trump appointees, slammed Administrator Andrew Wheeler for ignoring “established science” in his move to roll back the mercury rule, the Post reported in December.
Repeal of the mercury rule was on the wish list that Robert Murray, founder of the nation’s largest privately owned coal mining company and one of President Trump’s biggest backers, gave the White House just weeks after Trump’s inauguration. Before joining the Trump administration, EPA chief Wheeler was a highly paid coal industry lobbyist whose clients included Robert Murray and Murray Energy.
“Wheeler’s salary may come from taxpayers but, as this attack on the mercury rule demonstrates, he’s still working for the coal industry,” said Cook.
Despite President Trump’s promises to revive the coal industry, in October, Murray Energy became the eighth coal company to file for bankruptcy in the past year.
The Environmental Working Group is a nonprofit, non-partisan organization that empowers people to live healthier lives in a healthier environment. Through research, advocacy and unique education tools, EWG drives consumer choice and civic action.