Supreme Court returns EPA’s Mercury and Air Toxics Standards to lower court

Children and the elderly are among those vulnerable to toxic air pollution from power plants. Although the U.S. Supreme Court sent EPA's Mercury and Air Toxics Standards rule back to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, the decision cannot undo the progress made in the South's energy mix over the past decade. (© Amy Benoit)

In a narrow 5-4 decision—and on narrow legal grounds—the Supreme Court sent the Environmental Protection Agency’s Mercury and Air Toxics Standards rules back to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals for reconsideration. The so-called "MATS" rules were the first-ever federal attempt at regulating mercury and other toxic air pollutants known to cause respiratory illness, birth defects, and developmental problems in children, but a majority of justices said the agency failed to consider cost when it initally decided to regulate, despite the fact that EPA did consider cost when deciding how stringent to make the rules.

"The Supreme Court did not question or overturn the substance of the rule," says SELC's John Suttles, "or EPA’s conclusion that the public health benefits of new safeguards vastly outweigh the costs to industry to institute modern pollution controls. Today’s decision requires EPA to go back to cure an administrative error, but it should not be seen as a defeat for these critical protections, which protect children and families vulnerable to toxic mercury, lead, arsenic, and other heavy metals from one of the biggest unregulated sources of toxic air pollution from coal-fired power plants.

"Our position is this rule needs to be kept in place. Many sources have already implemented the rule, providing vitally important public health protections without significant costs to ratepayers. We believe those should remain in place while EPA addresses this procedural defect in the rule.”

Ironically, major changes in how we generate and consume energy in the Southeast over the past 5-10 years have validated the efficacy of the MATS rules—virtually all power plants in our region are now meeting or can meet the standards. SELC has been at the vanguard of those efforts, working to halt plans for new coal-fired power plants, to retire or convert others, and to install modern pollution controls on several more. Disappointing though this decision is, it certainly offers no reason to give up the hard-won environmental and health benefits we have secured and now enjoy.

“We believe today’s decision by the U.S. Supreme Court does not necessarily—and should not—delay vital safeguards for people’s health," adds Suttles, "particularly in the Southeast, where people are vulnerable to some of the largest concentrations of coal-fired power plants in the country. Coal plants are among the largest sources of toxic pollution into the air we breathe."

SELC represented the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Lung Association, American Nurses Association, American Public Health Association, and Physicians for Social Responsibility as interveners in the case. According to EPA, when fully implemented MATS protections would have

  • saved up to 11,000 people every year from premature death
  • prevented nearly 5,000 heart attacks each year
  • prevented 130,000 asthma attacks annually, and
  • avoided more than 540,000 days when people have to miss work because of health problems associated with pollution from power plants.

 The standards went into effect in 2011 and are based on successful measures already in place in many states across the Southeast.

Read the SELC press release on the decision.

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