Mercury Is Toxic. Andrew Wheeler’s Proposed Rollback Is Even Worse.

January 8, 2019 | 4:38 pm
Photo: USDA/Flickr
Kathleen Rest
Former Executive Director

UPDATE (April 15, 2019): You have until the end of the day on Wednesday, April 17, to submit a public comment on this proposed rollback. The Union of Concerned Scientists has made it easy for you to share your thoughts directly with the EPA. For all the details and background, we also wrote a technical guide to help inform discussion; learn more about it here.

Late last month and just in time to welcome in a new year of rolling back public health protections, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced its intention to propose a new formula for calculating the human health benefits that come from reducing air pollution from power plants.

In a clever, calculated, and cynical move, the agency took aim at its own Mercury and Air Toxics Standard (MATS)—adopted during the Obama administration—and decided to propose a revision to the agency’s 2016 supplemental finding that it is “appropriate and necessary” to regulate mercury and hazardous air pollutants (HAPS) from power plants, even after considering costs. The new proposal’s bottom line: Regulating hazardous air pollution from power plants under the Clean Air Act is no longer “appropriate and necessary.” It’s just too costly. (You can learn more about this travesty in my previous post.)

In a crafty and dangerous ploy, EPA Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler has proposed a whole new way to look at the costs and benefits of MATS. His rationale: it’s just not right to count the cumulative health benefits of regulating mercury and hazardous air pollutant (HAP) emissions from power plants. In other words, forget about the co-benefits that come from the reduced emissions of particulate matter that go hand-in-glove with reducing emissions of mercury and HAPS. (You can read more about the public health impacts of particulate matter here.)

Discounting co-benefits is PEAK nonsense

In finalizing the MATS rule back in 2012, the EPA noted its significant public health benefits—benefits that would accrue to neighborhoods around power plants as well as to communities well-beyond the plant. They estimated the annual benefits to range from $37 billion to $90 billion, with compliance costs to industry estimated at $7.4 to $9.6 billion annually. The pollution controls required by the standard would be a trifecta for public health—mercury, fine particles, and sulfur dioxide emissions would all be reduced.

The EPA estimated that these cumulative benefits would prevent up to 11,000 premature deaths, more than 100,000 asthma and heart attacks, 5,700 emergency room visits, and over 3 million days of restricted activity—EACH YEAR. Pretty good return on investment, wouldn’t you say?

So how ridiculous is it to decide these co-benefits don’t count. As a scientist, it’s basically like saying you are closing your eyes to a major impact of the action. As a policymaker, it essentially says, “Efficiency doesn’t matter. I know we have this huge potential benefit, but let’s only deal with one issue at a time rather than try to feed two birds with one scone.”

But OK—this EPA has decided to throw common sense and efficiency out the window. Their proposal basically says “Let’s just focus only on the direct benefits of controlling the mercury and HAPS emissions alone; if we did that, the benefits are only $4 million to $6 million.” So hardly worth it, right?  As a public health professional, this struck me as particularly pernicious.

Mercury – what we know

First of all, the health impacts of mercury exposure are well known, extensively documented, and pretty nasty. It’s a potent neurotoxin that affects the nervous system, cardiovascular system, and immune function—even at relatively low levels of exposure. Fetuses and young children are especially vulnerable to exposure, with devastating and life-long impacts on cognitive function, memory, language, attention, and visual and motor skills. Communities that rely on or consume large amounts of fish are also at higher health risk; these might include indigenous peoples, immigrant groups, and subsistence and recreational anglers.

Then there is the recent science, which suggests that the monetized benefits of controlling mercury emissions from power plants were vastly understated by the EPA in its 2011 regulatory impact analysis of MATS. A 2016 paper in Environmental Science and Technology details several problems with it, noting that the assessment considered only a small subset of the public health and environmental risks associated with mercury emissions—yes, mercury, directly and specifically.

And then we might consider that MATS has been highly effective in reducing atmospheric concentrations of mercury in the US.

There’s also the study of neurotoxicity prevention due to methyl mercury control efforts in Europe, which found that “total annual benefits of exposure prevention within the EU were estimated at more than 600,000 IQ points per year, corresponding to a total economic benefit between €8,000 million and €9,000 million per year.”

And finally, there’s the fact that most coal plants have already come into compliance with MATS by installing the necessary pollution control technology.

Are mercury and HAPS  too costly to control?

I guess the answer depends on whose costs and benefits get the most weight. If you think about the women and children in your life and about the serious health impacts of mercury emissions, you might just favor those regulatory safeguards even if reducing them is costly to the polluters. You might think that regulating them is both “necessary and appropriate.” And if so, you should be worried—I mean really worried—about what the EPA’s latest rollback ruse means. Not just for mercury and hazardous air pollutants from power plants, but how the agency could apply this new cost-benefit calculus to other pollutants that endanger our health in the future.

Now don’t be fooled. Acting Administrator Wheeler is quick to claim that the MATS rule remains in place (at least for now), and that it is simply changing its underlying cost calculus. I call it sabotage by another name. Others have characterized it as “the EPA’s Trojan Horse objective.”

So, I repeat what I said last week. This is NOT OK.  It’s critical that we let the EPA know what we think of its wonky little revision. It’s a crafty, nasty, and dangerous proposal that could roll back current safeguards and undermine future public health and environmental protections.

Get ready to submit your comments on this rule to EPA and alert your colleagues to do the same. We will alert you when the public comment period opens for this rule and to any public hearing on the proposal.

I also hope that Acting Administrator Wheeler is questioned about this cynical move at his likely confirmation hearing in mid- to late January. It would be great to hear senators on the Environment and Public Works Committee ask him why the agency shouldn’t embrace the efficiencies of evaluating ALL the benefits of a rule—and make public health the overarching priority— rather than narrowing the scope of its benefits.