The Trump administration handed a long-expected victory to the coal industry on Friday, proposing to remove the basis for regulating pollution for companies whose products contribute most of the mercury, arsenic, and other toxins in the environment.
Coal contributes about 48% of all airborne mercury pollution, most dangerously transmitted to fish that people eat.
The Environmental Protection Agency announced the proposed easing of cost estimate rules for limiting mercury and other toxic emissions from coal-fired power plants, taking aim at 2011 Obama administration mercury and air toxics standards for air pollution linked to premature deaths in adults and brain damage in infants.
Previous pollution rules will remain in place for now, but the proposal sets the stage for future attacks on them, according to legal observers.
Essentially, the proposal finds that the difference in the EPA’s estimate of yearly costs of the standards to utilities, around $7.4 billion to $9.6 billion, “dwarfs” its estimated benefits of $4 million to $6 million. And it concludes that regulating hazardous air pollutants such as mercury under the standards is therefore not necessary.
The agency came to this conclusion by not counting “co-benefits” — such as reducing the costs of people killed by asthma from fine particle pollution — from the standards in reducing harm from other pollutants, estimated at $24 billion to $80 billion.
“The Trump Administration is providing regulatory certainty by transparently and accurately taking account of both costs and benefits,” said an EPA statement on the proposal. The Supreme Court in 2015 had called for the revised cost estimates of the standards, in a 5–4 decision authored by Judge Antonin Scalia.
“They’re just saying that, in this case, where virtually all the benefits are ‘co-benefits’ of reducing a pollutant that is supposed to be regulated under other Clean Air Act programs, we can’t use these co-benefits to justify a regulation that is only supposed to be about hazardous air pollutants,” former EPA official and energy lobbyist Jeff Holmstead of Bracewell LLP, said in a statement.
Public health advocates came out strongly against the proposal, suggesting it will lead to a rollback of pollution standards by undermining the basis for hazardous air toxin regulation and inviting industry lawsuits against the rules.
“There is no legitimate justification for this action,” American Lung Association president Harold Wimmer said in a statement. The 2011 standards prevent up to 11,000 premature deaths a year and cut mercury pollution, a potent neurotoxin that causes brain damage in babies,” he added.
Other health organizations such as the American Academy of Pediatrics, March of Dimes, and the American Public Health Association similarly decried the proposal, citing health risks to pregnant women and children.
The Trump administration initially announced it was reconsidering this rule back in August. Former EPA chief Gina McCarthy, at a press briefing with reporters last week, said, “This appears to be just part of the overall strategy that this administration is deploying to roll back protections put in the past by the EPA.”
The proposal is the latest coal-related EPA move this year, following one to replace the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan and another to reduce pollution standards for new coal power plants. The public now has 60 days to comment on the proposal.
Zahra Hirji contributed reporting to this story.