Great! If COVID-19 Doesn’t Get Me, Perhaps the Mercury Will: Trump EPA Rejects Justification for Pollution Rule

By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.

COVID-19 will eventually be tamed – or somehow we’ll learn to cope with it. I have to keep reminding myself of that fact, so as not to go mad as a hatter.  But maybe I should just stop resisting  as the Environmental Protection Agency has decided this is as good time as any to tinker with mercury regulation, and not in  good way, thus dooming us all to descend into madness,

Bring back the mad hatter!

During the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Environmental Protection Agency decided that the wisest thing it can do is worsen air quality! I guess nothing should surprise me, as the Trump administration has consistently and relentlessly gutted environmental standards, taking especial delight in overturning actions of his predecessor – no matter how tepid they may be.

As Ecowatch tells the story in Trump’s EPA Weakens Justification for Life-Saving Mercury Pollution Rule

As many Americans fight for their lives in the midst of a respiratory pandemic, the Trump administration Thursday axed the justification for a mercury pollution rule that saves more than 10,000 lives and prevents as many as 130,000 asthma attacks each year.

The new rollback leaves mercury emission standards in place for now, but changes how their benefits are calculated so that the economic cost takes precedence over public health gains, The New York Times reported. The move provides a legal opening to challenge other pollution controls even as evidence suggests that exposure to air pollution might increase one’s chances of dying from the new coronavirus.

“This is an absolute abomination,” former Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) head under Obama and Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) president Gina McCarthy said in a statement. “This final rule will increase the risk of more kids with asthma and brain damage, and more people with cancer. Undermining these vital safeguards now also directly threatens the people hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, making it even harder to breathe and putting people with respiratory illnesses at even higher risk.”

The EPA ’s Previous Policy

To understand what the EPA did, we must start with the previous policy. According to Ecowatch:

The Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS), first passed in 2011 when McCarthy headed the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, were the first of their kind to limit toxic emissions like mercury and lead from coal-fired power plants. These metals are particularly harmful to pregnant women and the brains of children.

Between 2006, when states first began controlling mercury, and 2016, when the MATS took full effect, mercury emissions declined 85 percent, The Washington Post pointed out. At the center of Thursday’s decision is not the standards themselves, however, but how they were justified.

The Obama administration argued that, while the standards would cost the industry as much as $9.6 billion a year, the country as a whole would save between $37 billion and $90 billion in public health costs. However, these calculations considered co-benefits of the mercury rule such as a decline in soot and smog-causing pollution.

Trump Policy

The Trump EPA took issue with the cost benefit analysis previously done to justify enacting the mercury rule. With that analysis overturned, the EPA opens the door to future lawsuits challenengng these and other similar regulations. This move foreshadows a future shift in regulatory approach: we ain’t seen nothing yet!

According to Reuters, Trump administration weakens mercury rule for coal plants:

The Trump administration on Thursday withdrew the legal justification for an Obama-era rule that forced coal-fired power plants to cut their mercury emissions, saying the cost of compliance far outweighed the public health benefits.

The move, which was slammed by environmentalists and utility companies, leaves the so-called Mercury and Air Toxic Standards in place for now, but could pave the way for lawsuits from companies opposed to it and prevent similar regulations from being implemented in the future.

“It’s honest accounting,” Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler said in a conference call with reporters announcing the move.

At issue is a 2016 conclusion by then-President Barack Obama’s EPA that forcing coal-fired power plants to slash mercury output was justified because savings to consumers on healthcare costs would exceed compliance costs. Mercury can harm pregnant women and put infants and children at risk of developmental problems.

The calculations used at the time, however, accounted for how pollution-control equipment at coal plants would reduce emissions of particulate matter and other harmful substances that come out of smokestacks, in addition to mercury.

Republican President Donald Trump’s EPA said in 2018 it had reviewed the justification for the rule and believed it was inappropriate to have included the benefits of reducing emissions other than mercury. It proposed withdrawing the justification. Thursday’s announcement finalized that proposal.

The revised analysis of the rule estimated the cost to coal- and oil-fired power plants to be between $7.4 billion and $9.6 billion a year, compared with quantified health benefits of just $4 million to $6 million a year – accounting for mercury alone.

“The more transparent we are about the science behind our regulations, and the costs and the benefits behind our regulations, the more acceptance we will see across the board from the American public,” Wheeler said.

He emphasized that the rule’s requirements had not changed and said the EPA would defend it if challenged in court.

But he added that the changes “foreshadow” the agency’s approach to an upcoming cost-benefit regulation. {emphasis added.]

Power Industry Oppose Rule Change, But That doesn’t Stop the Trump EPA

One problem: the industry has already spent much money preparing to comply with the previous rule. Aaccording to Environment and Energy Leader in EPA’s Mercury Regulation Rollback Could Increase Energy Costs, the industry actually opposes the Trump EPA’s latest action as they’ve already sunk billions of dollars to comply with the rule:

Environmental advocates and utility executives have criticized the rule change since the Trump administration first proposed it. Utilities have already spent $3 billion annually between 2012 and 2018 to be in compliance, according to the Post. Co-benefits were previously calculated to be worth between $37 billion and $90 billion.

Scott A. Weaver, the director of air quality services for the utility American Electric Power, expressed concern about the rollbacks in a written comment on a draft of the new rule, according to the New York Times.

“‘Rescinding the standards at this point will create new problems,’ Weaver wrote, noting that companies that have sought to recoup the cost of installing mercury control equipment through bills to customers may no longer legally be able to do so,” the Times reported. “That means the new rule could actually cost companies more money.” And that may be passed along to ratepayers.

Edison Electric Institute spokesman Brian Reil told the Post that the electric power industry has invested more than $18 billion in pollution controls and reduced mercury emissions by nearly 90% since 2010. Utilities remain concerned about the possibility of new risks, including legal challenges, from the rule change the outlet added.

Wait a minute: this seems mad. Or have I lost it already? The power industry has already ponied up to comply with the tougher rule, and opposes backsliding on the mercury rule, but that doesn’t stop the Trump EPA.

According to Reuters:

But the U.S. coal industry has railed against the mercury rule, and blamed it for putting hundreds of coal-fired power plants out of business in recent years.

Ahh. Now I understand!

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  1. Blinky the Fish

    COVID-related mercury warning goes double for me given the volume of tuna sandwiches I’ve been consuming (despite my name) post-lockdown…

  2. Tom Stone

    If you know anyone who is surprised by this, DON’T TELL THEM ABOUT SANTA!
    It might be the last straw.

  3. Edward

    Yes, this is an abomination. Not only has the Flint, MI crisis continued unresolved, but now it will be duplicated everywhere. Polluting industries will make an all-out effort to unload their waste before this ruling is overturned. The only hope now is the courts, I guess.

    It seems the Corona crisis can be used to justify anything. Maybe Trump and Congress should decree, because of the crisis, they should get $1 trillion. How much of what is left of the constitution will get the axe?

  4. Tom Stone

    Now, now Edward, The Democrats have nominated Joe Biden, defender of the environment and champion of the common man!
    Who can forget the packed rallies and the frenzied screams of “Joe Floats my boat” from his passionate supporters?

    1. Edward

      I think Sanders was the last chance for this country before everything really falls apart. In the next few years we will close in on failed state status.

      1. CarlH

        From my perspective, all the tell tale signs of failed state are already present here. As is said in these parts, it’s just unevenly distributed.

        1. Edward

          Given all the chicanery that went on with the voting, its not clear that Biden actually won the primary. Which begs the question whether the U.S. is even a democracy any more. If the voting is rigged, how do the two political parties decide who gets “elected”?

  5. rd

    Nearly all of his rule changes deteriorate the environment more for his base than for blue state voters. The mercury rule, stream protection rule etc. are all focused mainly in the Mid-West, Appalachia, and the South.

    Meanwhile, his base is heavily reliant on Social Security for retirement and disability and he wants to get rid of payroll taxes (I think as a hotel and restaurant operator he chafes at having to pay the employer portion).

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