The Trump administration has been trying to dismantle Obama-era mercury regulations since October 2018. It based a decision to rollback the rule based on an analysis the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that found its decision “appropriate and necessary.”
Surprise, that analysis also appears to be pretty flawed. In a study published in Science on Thursday, researchers argue that the EPA’s analysis “ignores scientific evidence, economic best practice, and its own guidance.”
The EPA’s analysis is based on the same research the agency used in 2011, when it first analyzed the need for mercury standards. But the authors say that 2011 research “woefully undercounted direct health benefits of reducing mercury emissions.” In the past 9 years, we’ve learned far more about the dangers of mercury pollution in seafood an its detrimental effects on cardiovascular health (for instance, exposure puts people at greater likelihood of heart attacks). The potent neurotoxin has also been linked to other health issues ranging from digestive system issues and immune disorders to birth defects and brain damage. But the cost-benefit analysis ignored those recent findings, and thereby reported a falsely low cost the rollback would have on public health.
The EPA’s analysis also ignored the indirect public health benefits, or “co-benefits,” of the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) rule. Though the rule directly targets mercury emissions, the authors say its effects have been far greater than just limiting exposure to that one toxic metal.
“The activities that power plants undertake to comply with MATS... would be switching to cleaner fuels or installing pollution control equipment,” Matthew Kotchen, a professor of economics at Yale University and co-author of the paper, told Earther in an email. “And these activities also reduce the emissions and eventual pollution concentrations of harmful particulate matter.”
The authors also say the EPA’s analysis ignores the major ways the electricity sector has changed since the Obama administration first introduced the rule—namely, that coal plants all over the country are closing. Renewable energy is also now cheaper than coal power, something the cost-benefit analysis ignores.
“The original analysis of MATS took place in 2011, and since then the electricity generating sector in the United States has undergone unprecedented change, due mostly to a switch from coal to natural gas, and increased reliance of renewables,” said Kotchen. “That the EPA did not take these shifts into account is important because it affects both the cost and benefits of MATS now, compared to what was expected nearly a decade ago.”
The EPA is reportedly planning to finalize the rollback soon despite these flaws. It’ll be the latest in a number of sweeping rollbacks the Trump administration has pursued recently, including auto emissions standards and suspended the enforcement of pollution regulations.
It’s bad enough that the EPA wanted to prioritize economic gains over human health. But what makes it worse is that in rolling back the MATS rule, we don’t actually have anything to gain.