Prodded by Coal Industry, the EPA Decides Mercury Is Fine, Just Fine. Remind Them: It’s Not.

April 12, 2019 | 10:07 am
Photo: Lyntha Scott Eiler/Flickr
Julie McNamara
Senior Energy Analyst

From the gaping maw of coal baron greed slithers another brazen ploy.

This time: guiding our nation’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to arrive at the stunning discovery that mercury spewed from coal plants is actually A-Okay.

That’s right. Under the direction of (former Murray Energy coal lobbyist) Administrator Andrew Wheeler, the EPA is now proposing to find that mercury, a potent neurotoxin that can ruin a person’s fair shake at life before they’re ever born, is neither appropriate nor necessary to regulate from coal plants—by far mercury pollution’s largest source.

Which is awfully convenient news for the desperate heads of coal mining corporations that are existentially dependent on power plants consuming more coal. For them, this regulatory turn would usher in a new refrain: puff away, coal plants, puff away! And with it, too, the devastating confirmation that today’s EPA is officially Not Okay.

This brash attack on the health and welfare of untold millions in favor of the fortunes of a coal-laden few is underpinned by an analytical sleight of hand buried deep in the regulatory fine print. It’s obscure, it’s dull—and it’s incredibly effective. The pernicious combination has polluters hoping to slip a game-changing precedent through without garnering the level of attention warranted by the staggering ramifications therein.

And so we go, once more unto the breach.

Public comments on this proposed rule are incredibly important, to officially record objections to an outright decimation of the value of public health in favor of polluter preference.

The Union of Concerned Scientists has made it easy for you to submit your own comments. For all the details and background, we also wrote a technical guide to help inform discussion, introduced by my colleague Rachel here; below, I’ll offer context, and highlight four key points. The deadline for public comments is April 17

Mercury protections, and mercury attacks

At immediate issue is the “appropriate and necessary” finding underpinning the 2012 Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) for coal- and oil-fired power plants.

In the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments, Congress directed the EPA to regulate hazardous air pollutants—including mercury, as well as things like nickel, arsenic, and chromium—from coal-fired power plants, provided the agency first found such regulations to be “appropriate and necessary.”

Which the agency did. Repeatedly. And unsurprisingly, given the devastating health effects of mercury, the dominating contribution of coal plants to mercury pollution, and the fact that effective controls readily existed and were already installed on approximately 60 percent of the existing coal fleet when MATS was released.

And by 2016, in line with deadlines, virtually all covered coal plants were in compliance. Far under expected cost, with no negative effects on grid reliability, and achieving a 96 percent reduction in annual emissions of hazardous air pollutants—including an 86 percent, or 25-ton, drop in mercury—by 2017. Which means that a lot less mercury is now in the air, settling on the ground, entering the food chain, and accumulating in our bodies, not to mention the bodies of all those still to come.

So why, why, why this new proposed reversal by Wheeler’s EPA?

Because coal consumption has taken a hit, and Robert Murray—fervent supporter of President Trump and Founder, Chairman, President, and CEO of Murray Energy, a coal mining empire wholly dependent on domestic consumption of coal— is hitting back, leading the coal industry charge in an attempt to tear down every hurdle in sight.

And because some polluters have long complained about the costs of pollution standards (compared to previously polluting for free), and this rule provides a chance to permanently change the math.

Which brings us to this action, and a spectacular kowtowing to both: a bold hand-out to Robert Murray and his coal company cohorts, coupled with the establishment of precedent to permanently tip the regulatory scales in favor of polluter profits over public health.

How to make a good rule look bad

So how does Administrator Wheeler pull it off?

By assuming a dark and dismal view, where human health matters not and polluter preference matters lots. Here, the agency’s four-step approach to making all the compelling reasons for regulation go away:

First, refuse to consider co-benefits. Co-benefits are benefits that occur because of a rule but were not the principal target of the rule. Like when power plants burn coal, lots of pollutants are released, so attempts to limit any one pollutant often means a lot of other pollutants are reduced, too. This is a good thing! It means efficiency, and cost-effective health improvements. Long-standing regulatory guidance has been to ensure that these co-benefits count. But not according to the EPA’s refreshed perspective, which wipes these co-benefits right off the map, excluding an estimated annual reduction of 11,000 premature deaths, 130,000 asthma attacks, and 4,700 heart attacks, valued on the order of $37 billion to $90 billion each year.

Second, ignore benefits which are known to occur but can’t be easily monetized. Although mercury and hazardous air pollutants have been recorded as causing or contributing to a range of severe negative effects, including neurological damage in developing brains, chronic respiratory diseases, and various cancers, at the time of the EPA’s 2011 evaluation, the agency was only able to fully quantify a single effect, for a single exposure pathway, for a single pollutant. In the past, the EPA acknowledged this significant omission, but because these unquantifiable benefits further supported the agency’s conclusions that regulation was appropriate, the lack of quantification was not a problem. Now, because they’re counter to its tack, the EPA “acknowledges the importance of these benefits,” then dismissively waves them away.

Third, disregard new information. The EPA last performed a quantitative analysis in 2011. Lots of new research has been performed since that time, including to help quantify previously unquantifiable benefits, as well as to identify new benefits that were not previously known. What’s more, because MATS already went into effect, the actual—as opposed to industry-projected—costs of compliance are now known. And they are much, much lower than previously guessed. Which all suggests a major shift to the ledger: benefits orders of magnitude higher, costs orders of magnitude lower. Or at least, it should suggest. But the EPA? It now insists that the agency should only consider what it knew back in 2011, however wrong or incomplete that knowledge may well be.

Fourth, pretend it’s all a lark. Throughout the proposed rule, EPA insists that it does not intend to rescind MATS itself, just the entire regulatory framework upon which it stands. This, of course, is patently absurd. The EPA can’t have it both ways, and it knows it: by employing such an approach, the agency is positioning challengers to be able to knock the whole thing down, while attempting to avoid the firefight of undoing MATS outright.

And quod erat demonstrandum: the previously inconceivable. Where once, twice, three times the EPA found that the towering benefits of limiting toxic pollution from coal plants were well worth the costs, now, in the alpenglow of the deregulatory agenda, it appears that mercury pollution is fine, just fine.

Fight back!

Mercury is bad. Really bad. For human health, and for the environment.

Or at least it was, until this proposed rule “discovered” otherwise.

Don’t stand for it! Speak up, speak out, and make the many count more than the favored few—for this vital public health protection, and all the health protections still to come.

Submit your comment today!