President Donald Trump is down with more mercury in the air if that’ll help the coal industry. According to the Washington Post, the Environmental Protection Agency sent a proposal to the White House Friday that suggests altering a rule regulating emissions of mercury—a potent neurotoxin—because the current regulations cost too much.
None of this is surprising. The administration confirmed to the New York Times back in August that a review of the Obama-era rule—the first federal rule to address emissions of mercury—was coming. Plus, this is in line with Trump’s favorite pledge of reviving coal. Nearly half of U.S. manmade mercury emissions come from coal-fired power plants, and if regulating mercury is hurting those plants, well, let there be mercury!
Of course, coal is dying, and that has little to do with regulations. It has to do with economics. Other energy sources, especially natural gas, are cheaper. No Trumpian move will shake the coal industry from its grave, but decisions like this can make a lot more people sick.
Former President Barack Obama finalized the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) in 2011 to limit the amount of the toxic metal power plants can emit. The EPA spent some time in court defending these standards against industry groups, and the case eventually made its way to the Supreme Court in 2015. There, the courts asked the EPA to properly analyze the costs associated with the rule, and so Obama’s administration did. It found the rule to be “appropriate and necessary,” a legal term under the Clean Air Act that weighs it using a cost-benefit analysis.
That analysis considered “co-benefits,” additional benefits that come from regulating mercury that include decreasing emissions of particulate matter, which can lead to heart and lung disease. With those co-benefits in mind, the rule jumped from $6 million in annual public health benefits to $37—$90 billion, per the Post.
Now, Trump wants to either scrap the mercury standards completely or re-write them after changing the way the EPA does its cost-benefit analysis. Which of the two the EPA is planning remains speculative as the agency hasn’t released a formal public comment and has not responded to a comment request from Earther, either. But the Clean Air Act requires the agency to regulate mercury, so whatever proposal comes out will face public scrutiny and likely a wave of litigation.
“We could be in a situation where coal plants operating at high levels of pollution control could be operating at a much lower level” if Trump loosens these standards, said Joe Goffman, the executive director of Harvard Law School’s Environmental and Energy Law Program, to Earther. “Local communities, as well as broad regions, will see more pollution in the atmosphere.”
And the effects could reverberate far beyond mercury if the Trump administration decides to adopt a narrower rule that ignores co-benefits. Other rules under the Clean Air Act, like Obama’s defeated Clean Power Plan, look at co-benefits, too. If this becomes the norm, other rules that include co-benefits in their analysis may also be deemed not “appropriate and necessary.”
What this could ultimately mean is that fewer pollution controls, and more people exposed to mercury, particulate matter, arsenic, and other toxic pollutants that spew out of power plants. Additional pollution exposure without the protection from MATS could lead to 11,000 more premature deaths, 130,000 more asthma attacks, and 4,700 more heart attacks a year, according to the EPA. The people who will bear those health burdens the hardest are likely to be poor, non-white, or both.
These health concerns were really at the heart of why the EPA implemented these rules in the first place, said Janet McCabe, who helped write the Clean Power Plan when she led the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation. (Coincidentally, that office is now charged by Bill Wehrum, who’s made his love for mercury emissions no secret.)
“[Mercury emissions] was considered to be one of the biggest public health threats and one of the most important public health measures required by the Clean Air Act, so it was a priority for [the Obama] administration to move forward on,” she told Earther. “This was not a hard choice.”
Still, the Trump administration is clearly moving in a direction that values public health less and less, whether that means excluding key public health research from policy-making or bringing considerations of industry’s bottom line into the Clean Air Act.
If it does withdraw the “appropriate and necessary finding” regarding MATS, the administration will have to argue against the truth that reducing air pollution is beneficial. And it’d be doing so under the false premise that coal will just bounce back if regulations disappear.
“The U.S. is going to move away from coal,” said Melissa Powers, who directs the Green Energy Institute at the Lewis and Clark Law School, to Earther. “It’s actually quite cruel of this administration to suggest to people in the coal industry and to coal-dependent communities that somehow coal is going to come back.”
What will return are the days of unnecessary deaths at the hands of an industry too stubborn to give up.