EPA proposes easing regulation of mercury from coal plants

Katie Ramirez
December 31, 2018

It calculates that the crackdown on mercury and other toxins from coal plants produced only a few million dollars a year in measurable health benefits and was not "appropriate and necessary" - a legal benchmark under the country's landmark Clean Air Act.

However, the EPA said it will seek comment during a 60-day public-review period on whether "we would be obligated to rescind" the Obama-era rule if the agency adopts Friday's finding that the regulation was not appropriate and necessary. The federal government is required to take into account both the costs and health benefits when considering pollution regulations.

The proposal doesn't repeal the rule enacted under Obama that restricted some of the most hazardous pollutants coal plants emit. The rule, which acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler signed Thursday, is expected to appear in the federal register in the coming weeks. Mercury harms the developing nervous systems of children and causes other severe health damage.

The mercury regulation also costs the coal industry $9.6 billion annually, making it among the most expensive regulations the EPA has ever had to enforce. In a draft of its proposed rule (PDF), Trump's EPA said that the Obama-era EPA had erred by quantifying the co-benefits of reducing other, non-mercury pollutants in its analysis. Coal power plants in this country are the largest single manmade source of mercury pollutants, which enters the food chain through fish and other items that people consume.

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The National Mining Association praised the move, saying the mercury regulations are "punitive" and "massively unbalanced". That came not from curbing mercury itself but from the reduction in particulate matter linked to heart and lung disease that also occurs when cutting mercury emissions.

Howard Learner, the executive director of the Environmental Law and Policy Center, added he felt the decision would threaten famous American waters.

The Obama administration also broadly accepted that it's hard to put a specific dollar-figure on some health benefits - for instance, avoiding lost IQ points in infants (or other fetal harm), which has been linked to pregnant women eating mercury-contaminated fish. This is public health benefits.

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