WASHINGTON – In yet another rollback of public health protections, the Trump administration is preparing to gut a rule that has dramatically cut emissions of mercury, a toxic chemical known to harm the nervous systems of children and fetuses.
The New York Times reports that the Environmental Protection Agency has drafted a legal proposal to justify disregarding the public health economic benefits from curbing emissions of mercury and other heavy metals from coal-fired power plants. The Times says proposal could lead to repeal of the rule, which since implemented by President Obama has cut mercury emissions by an estimated 70 percent.
Coal plants are the largest source of mercury pollution. Rain washes it into the ocean, where it is consumed by fish and converted to highly toxic methylmercury, which accumulates in fish tissue – and in people who eat the fish.
“Another day, another rollback scheme, showing there is no public health protection this administration won’t attack,” said EWG President Ken Cook.
“The verdict on whether the rule was worth the price to protect children and fetuses from mercury is in,” Cook added. “The dramatic reduction in pollution is a remarkable achievement that parents should cheer and the EPA should be proud of. But that doesn’t matter to President Trump and acting EPA chief Andrew Wheeler. This is what happens when the agency that’s supposed to protect Americans’ health is run by a former coal lobbyist.”
Soon after the Trump administration assumed power, coal baron Robert Murray, CEO of Murray Energy and one of the President’s biggest backers, gave Energy Secretary Rick Perry a policy “wish list” that included repeal of the mercury air rule, among other items.
After EPA chief Scott Pruitt was forced by scandal to resign, Trump appointed as acting administrator Wheeler, a former lobbyist whose biggest client was Murray Energy. Wheeler is expected to send the proposal gutting the mercury rule to the White House in coming days.
The mercury rule requires the EPA to weigh the health and economic benefits of reducing emissions from power plants. This allowed the EPA to justify the cost to the coal industry of installing new technologies to reduce emissions of mercury and other air pollutants.
The Obama EPA estimated the rule would cost the coal-powered utility industry $9.6 billion a year. But the agency estimated the reduction of mercury emissions would also cut other pollutants such as soot and nitrogen oxide, preventing up to 11,000 premature deaths and 4,700 heart attacks each year. The EPA estimated those and other benefits would save $37 billion to $90 billion in health care costs and fewer missed work days.
But industry has challenged the rule. In 2015, the Supreme Court dealt the rule a major blow, saying the EPA failed to properly consider the cost to industry. That ruling sent the case back to a lower federal court, where a ruling has been delayed at request of the Trump administration.
According to The Washington Post, a year before the Supreme Court’s ruling, federal Judge Brett Kavanaugh – Trump’s current Supreme Court nominee – made the same argument that the rule was unfair to industry.
“Suppose you were the EPA Administrator. You have to decide whether to go forward with a proposed air quality regulation,” Kavanaugh wrote in a 2014 dissent from his colleagues on the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. “Before making that decision, what information would you want to know? You would certainly want to understand the benefits from the regulations. And you would surely ask how much the regulations would cost . . . That’s just common sense and sound government practice.”