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US EPA plan would hobble its ability to regulate

Proposed change for mercury rule could stymie future action to protect public health

by Cheryl Hogue
January 3, 2019 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 97, Issue 1


Photo shows drops of mercury on a white background.
Credit: Shutterstock
The EPA plans to change the legal underpinnings of a rule curbing mercury emissions. The proposed change could trammel the EPA's ability to regulate hazardous air pollutants.

A Trump administration proposal could make it harder for the US Environmental Protection Agency to regulate in the future and endanger existing rules that protect public health.

The proposal would change how the EPA calculates the health and environmental benefits from cuts in toxic air pollutants. The EPA announced the plan Dec. 28, 2018, just hours before it shut down because of a lapse in government funding.

The driver of the proposal is a 2012 regulation from the Obama administration to slash emissions of neurotoxic mercury from coal- and oil-fired power plants. The EPA estimated the cost of the regulation to be between $7.4 billion to $9.6 billion annually. The quantifiable benefits of reducing mercury were $4 million to $6 million.

However, the pollution controls that capture mercury also cut down on emissions of fine particles, which are linked to lung and cardiovascular problems. The health benefits from reduced particulate matter and mercury releases together added up to $33 billion to $90 billion a year, so the EPA under Obama deemed the rule “appropriate and necessary.”

Adopting an industry argument, the Trump administration proposed to reverse that determination based on the costs and benefits of mercury control alone. The EPA says it will leave the rule in place because power companies have spent billions to comply with it.

If finalized, the change would open a new line of legal attack on the mercury rule­ and potentially others that limit toxic air emissions from chemical plants.

Jeff Holmstead, an attorney for the law firm Bracewell who represents industry clients, says the proposal would apply only to regulatory decisions in which nearly all of the benefits for controlling a hazardous air pollutant stem from limiting other contaminants.

But by not considering these side benefits, “you’re ignoring important effects” on society from regulations, says Alan J. Krupnick, an economist with the think tank Resources for the Future. He says the EPA’s proposal would downplay side benefits while fully tallying their counterparts—the indirect costs of rules. An example of an indirect cost is unemployment if companies opt to close polluting factories.

“They’re trying to cook the books in favor of industry at the expense of the public health of Americans,” says Rachel Cleetus of the Union of Concerned Scientists.


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