A new proposal by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) would weaken a rule regulating toxic pollutants--including mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants—by eliminating government mandates that currently allow regulators to look at the health and environmental costs stemming from industrial waste and emissions.
The agency is proposing a major change to an Obama-era rule which states that when the government considers the cost of compliance with a regulation of a toxic chemical such as mercury, which has been found to harm the nervous systems of children and fetuses, it must also consider the "co-benefits" of the rule. As the New York Times reported Monday:
Under the mercury program, the economic benefits of those health effects, known as "co-benefits," helped to provide a legal and economic justification for the cost to industry of the regulation. For example, as the nation's power plants have complied with [the] rule by installing technology to reduce emissions of mercury, they also created the side benefit of reducing pollution of soot and nitrogen oxide, pollutants linked to asthma and lung disease.
The rollback was included on a "wish list" that coal CEO Robert Murray passed along to Energy Secretary Rick Perry shortly after President Donald Trump took office in 2017, due to the costs of compliance for the coal industry.
— Friends of the Earth (@foe_us) October 1, 2018
Acting EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler counted Murray's company, Murray Energy, among his clients when he worked as a lobbyist before entering government. Bill Wehrum, another top EPA official who authored the proposal, has also represented energy companies as a lawyer.
"If finalized, this shameful plan would undermine standards that have already been widely implemented, exposing our kids to more toxic mercury and arsenic just so Andrew Wheeler and Bill Wehrum can appease a handful of their former clients in the coal industry," said Mary Ann Hitt, director of the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal program, in a statement. "If anyone needed further proof that Wheeler and Wehrum are still working for coal millionaires, this is it."
While the Obama administration's rule demanding companies reduce their mercury emissions costs the $386 billion electric power industry about $9.6 billion annually, according to the Times, it also saved a total of $80 billion per year in healthcare costs associated with health conditions caused by pollution. Additionally, the rules saved another $6 billion in health benefits associated with the reduction of mercury.
In allowing the government to stop acknowledging the benefits of mercury regulation, the Trump administration is taking "the first legal step toward eliminating the standard entirely," John Walke of the Natural Resources Defense Council told the Times.
If approved, Walke warned, the deregulatory move would be a "sweeping attack" on the progress made under the Obama administration.
"Any sensible, rational person would recognize these basic protections for pregnant women and young children are already working, and throwing them out is a direct attack on their health and development. But Wheeler and Wehrum are putting the interests of their former employers before logic and before the health of our kids," said Hitt. "This disgraceful move by Wheeler and Wehrum directly endangers the health of our kids and we will do everything we can to stop it."