Trump EPA could let coal plants spew more mercury

The Trump administration wants to allow electric utilities to spew more mercury from plants, reversing one of the nation’s most successful pollution-control measures that has slashed the amount of toxics in the air and water.

The move is particularly odd because most coal plants have already installed mercury-scrubbing technology to comply with the more protective safeguards put in place during the Obama administration.

The change in direction comes down to profits.

The Obama administration reasoned that the benefit to public health from cutting mercury emissions and other hazardous pollutants from coal-plant smokestacks outweighed costs to the industry to achieve the reduction. Mercury is especially harmful to infants and pregnant women.

But President Donald Trump’s administration has come to a different conclusion, declaring that the health benefits are not worth the costs of clean up.

We’ve made tremendous strides together — our air is healthier, fish are safer to eat, and asthma sufferers have less to worry about. It’s hard to understand why the Trump administration wants to go backwards.”

—Frank Rambo, Senior Attorney and Leader of SELC's Energy and Air Team

The Trump administration quietly made the change in the hectic holiday time frame between Christmas and New Year.

“What is perplexing about this decision is that most coal plants have already installed these protections, and have been cleaning mercury and soot from the air,” said Frank Rambo, a senior SELC attorney who leads the group’s Energy and Air Team. “As a result, the air around these plants is cleaner, and there is far less mercury settling into water where it taints fish. It is hard to imagine why a coal plant owner would want to go back on that community investment, and even harder to imagine why the EPA would want them to.”

When Trump’s EPA announced the change, it pegged the benefit to public health from cutting mercury at between $4 million and $6 million a year. By contrast, the Obama administration put the health benefit at $80 billion a year.

The difference is centered on what other health benefits – or “co-benefits” in federal regulatory language – are tied to cleaning up the mercury emissions.

The technology used to reduce mercury from a plant’s emissions also traps fine particles, or soot. Keeping those toxic particles out of the air added to the health benefits of removing mercury, particularly for people with asthma and other breathing ailments. But the Trump administration’s EPA had declared it is wrong to count the “co-benefits” in the formula.

Under the Trump EPA’s new calculations, the cost to industry outweighed the benefits to public health.

“I think many people in the South would disagree,” Rambo said. “We’ve made tremendous strides together — our air is healthier, fish are safer to eat, and asthma sufferers have less to worry about. It’s hard to understand why the Trump administration wants to go backwards.”

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