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Trump Administration Courageously Ignores the Benefits of Reducing Toxic Mercury Emissions

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The rule would significantly decrease mercury emissions from coal plants. Guess that sounds like a bad idea to the president.
The rule would significantly decrease mercury emissions from coal plants. Guess that sounds like a bad idea to the president.
Photo: Getty

Humans have long known the health dangers of mercury, but that won’t stop the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from doing away with regulations designed to reduce emissions and protect public health. The agency released an update on Thursday that undermines a key rule to lower mercury emissions from coal plants.

The EPA first announced its intent to poke holes in the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) back in December 2018. Now, it’s going forward with redoing the cost-benefit analysis tied to the rule. This action doesn’t explicitly repeal the rule itself. But it seems to be setting the agency up to have a stronger legal basis when it chooses to formally roll back MATS.


How the EPA values the health and economic benefits vs. costs is at the heart of agency rule-making. When former President Barack Obama implemented the MATS rule in 2011, his staff found that controlling mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants would keep 90 percent of the mercury in coal burned from being released in the air. The benefits extend beyond mercury, though: Acid gas and sulfur dioxide emissions would drop dramatically, too.

Keeping all those toxic emissions out of the air provide many public health benefits. Air pollution damages the respiratory and cardiac system of those exposed while mercury can have negatively affect the nervous system. By reducing these emissions, the MATS rule would save an estimated 11,000 lives a year from premature death. The coronavirus pandemic is highlighting how the rule may be even more valuable than expected as preliminary findings show air pollution exposure may increase the likelihood of death from covid-19.


“In the middle of the most deadly pandemic in our lifetime, with people living in vulnerable communities who have been exposed to pollution dying at alarming rates due to chronic medical conditions precipitated by that pollution, the Trump Administration chooses now to undermine the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards?” Mustafa Santiago Ali, vice president of Environmental Justice, Climate, and Community Revitalization at the National Wildlife Federation, said in a statement.

Not only do people breathe this toxic junk in. Mercury can also wind up in land, water, and ultimately the fish on our dinner table. Eating fish and shellfish is the main exposure to mercury, according to the EPA. However, the new analysis doesn’t take into account the full health benefits of decreased mercury emissions. What’s more, the EPA also doesn’t include barely any of the co-benefits, such as the reductions in other air pollutants that occur alongside mercury. So in essence, the analysis makes the rule look like the costs for power plants to comply are are high and the benefits to society are low when that couldn’t be further from the truth.

“They didn’t look at the cardiovascular benefits, and those are a big ticket item,” Ellen Kurlansky, a former EPA policy analyst at the agency’s Office of Air and Radiation, told Earther. “It’s just not honest.”


The revised estimate claims the rule would only result in $4 to $6 million annually, which is preposterously low. Scientists recently published a peer-reviewed paper on the inherent flaws with the EPA’s analysis. They found that not only does the EPA ignore many measurable benefits in the Trump era analysis, it also uses outdated science from back in 2011 when MATS was first implemented. Nearly 10 years have passed since then, and there’s plenty more evidence that mercury is bad and that this rule is good.

Andrew Wheeler, the former coal lobbyist who now runs the EPA, is dead set on ignoring that evidence. And Trump is gonna Trump. Not even a global health crisis will stop this man from trying to harm even more people.