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With 'Unconscionable Rollback,' Trump EPA Lays Groundwork for Coal Industry to Release More Mercury Into the Air

Ignoring public health benefits, a Trump EPA analysis that could set a dangerous precedent for future regulations claims mercury emissions limits for dirty energy power plants aren't "appropriate and necessary"

dirty energy

The Trump administration's latest move to invalidate the legal justification for imposing mercury emissions limits on oil- and coal-fired power plants could have broader implications for imposing future federal public health regulations. (Photo: Jack Sem, Semtrio.com/Flickr/cc)

In a move decried by environmentalists as "both stunningly immoral and completely unnecessary," the Trump administration just proposed "an unconscionable rollback to serve the coal industry at the expense of all Americans, especially our children," that could also stymie future efforts to impose federal public health regulations.

"Gutting MATS will put toxic pollution back in our air and cause thousands of people to die unnecessary premature deaths every year."
—James Pew, Earthjustice

Building on President Donald Trump's two-year track record of gutting his predecessor's environmental rules, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a new analysis claiming that a regulation limiting how much mercury and other pollutants oil- and coal-fired power plants can emit isn't "appropriate and necessary," disputing the agency's conclusions under former President Barack Obama.

As the New York Times reported Friday:

Trump's new proposal does not repeal the regulation, known as the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS), but it would lay the groundwork for doing so by weakening a key legal justification for the measure. The long-term impact would be significant: It would weaken the ability of the EPA to impose new regulations in the future by adjusting the way the agency measures the benefits of curbing pollutants, giving less weight to the potential health gains.

Janet McCabe, who ran the EPA's air office under Obama, told the Times, "There is a likelihood that this rule-making will be the administration's flagship effort to permanently change the way the federal government considers health benefits."

When crafting the regulation, the Obama EPA considered not only the direct gains of curbing mercury pollution, but also public health impacts such as fewer asthama attacks and premature deaths. Under notoriously pro-coal Trump, the agency is now, as Bloomberg News put it, "effectively ignoring those so-called co-benefits and focusing only on the direct potential benefits from slashing mercury emissions."

Ex-coal lobbyist and current EPA Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler "is attacking the foundational building blocks for these critical protections," declared Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) president Fred Krupp. In spite of the fact that much of the industry complies with MATS, which enjoys widespread public support, "and in spite of all common sense, Wheeler is plowing ahead."

John Walke of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) denounced the new proposal as "absurd" and "dangerous." Referencing previous EPA findings on the regulation's public health benefits—which are disputed by the Trump administration—Walke concluded the agency's latest move on MATS "sabotages health standards that already are avoiding as many as 130,000 asthma attacks, 5,000 heart attacks, and 11,000 premature deaths now."

"Wheeler knows he's wrong, which is why he's using a con man's tricks to give a Christmas present to industry and a lump of coal to the rest of the country. Like the Grinch, it appears, his heart is two sizes too small."
—Pew

"Gutting MATS will put toxic pollution back in our air and cause thousands of people to die unnecessary premature deaths every year," warned Earthjustice staff attorney James Pew. "Wheeler knows he's wrong, which is why he's using a con man's tricks to give a Christmas present to industry and a lump of coal to the rest of the country. Like the Grinch, it appears, his heart is two sizes too small."

The proposal—which has been anticipated for months and got the green light from Wheeler on Thursday—is expected appear in the Federal Registrar in the coming weeks, after which there will be a 60-day public comment period, followed by the EPA's publication of a final rule.

As Common Dreams previously has reported, this rollback was included on the "wish list" that coal CEO Robert Murray, a donor to Trump's campaign, gave to Energy Secretary Rick Perry after Trump took office. His company, Murray Energy Corporation, was one of Wheeler's clients when the acting administrator worked as a coal lobbyist.

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