Trump Deregulates Toxic Mercury Poisoning Restrictions For Coal Producers

On Friday, the Environmental Protection Agency said that limiting mercury and other toxic emissions from coal- and oil-fired plants is not cost-effective and should not be considered “appropriate and necessary”.

The restrictions were originally put into place with amendments to the Clean Air Act in 1990, which were not finalized until 2012. Largely because utilities have already spent billions to comply with the 2012 restrictions, the EPA is keeping the Obama-era law in place for the moment. In a statement, the EPA said that its intent is “providing regulatory certainty by transparently and accurately taking account of both costs and benefits.”

The National Mining Association celebrated the move, calling the mercury protections “punitive” and “massively unbalanced.” Director Hal Quinn called the regulations “perhaps the largest regulatory accounting fraud perpetrated on American consumers.”

Conversely, environmental groups see the move as a step toward a complete repeal of limits that would make regulation more difficult to impose in the future, according to NPR.

Burning coal releases mercury into the air, which can cause serious complications for people with neurological disorders, heart and lung problems, and compromised immune systems. Young children and babies developing in the womb are particularly at risk. Mercury pollutants also enter the food chain through contaminated fish and other items that people consume, according to MarketWatch.

The reversal comes after a 2015 court ruling that the EPA must take into account not only the cost-benefit of the mercury rule to American citizens, but also the prohibitive costs for producers. The Obama administration had calculated over $80 billion in cost benefit to Americans due to the “co-benefits” of other toxins being limited by the mercury restrictions, preventing over 11,000 premature deaths per year. However, the Trump administration has reversed course, suggesting the benefits only amount to $4-6 billion per year. The cost to the industry is estimated somewhere between $7.6 and $9.6 billion.

“What has changed now is the administration’s attitude towards public health,” said Clean Air Task Force Legal Director Ann Weeks in a statement.

“We should not limit ourselves in the ongoing fight against this dangerous pollutant,” said mercury expert Celia Chen of the Dartmouth Toxic Metals Superfund Research Program. “Regulators need the tools to strengthen mercury controls in the future if needed,” she added, noting that climate change may exacerbate the effects of mercury pollution.

Even though the EPA’s mercury standards have faced court challenges, utilities have already spent over $18 billion to comply with the standards. In a letter to the EPA last summer, utilities and regulatory groups said mercury emissions had been curbed nearly 90 percent over the past decade. In the same letter, they also asked the Trump administration to leave the existing standards in place.

The move is the latest environmental protection target of the Trump administration, which has already allowed oil and gas drilling in Alaksa’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, loosened rules on capturing methane when drilling for energy, approved a series of oil pipelines, ended the Clean Power Plan, repealed the Clean Water Rule, and increased use of carbon-emitting fossil fuels, as well as pulled out of the Paris accord on climate change, according to the Independent.

“Trump and Andrew Wheeler just put coal in the stocking and mercury in the drinking water of American moms and kids, in a cynical and dangerous move days after Christmas,” said Mary Anne Hitt, Director of the Beyond Coal campaign of the Sierra Club. “If this disgraceful proposal is finalised, it will mean that profits corporate polluters rake in while making our kids sick will officially take priority at the EPA over the health of the public and the environment. The policy… means more pregnant women, young children, and the elderly will be exposed to deadly neurotoxins and poisons, just so wealthy coal and oil barons can make a few extra bucks. Virtually every coal plant in the US has already met this lifesaving standard, and now Trump is recklessly trying to roll it back.”