EPA Wants To Hollow Out Regulations That Safeguard Against Mercury Poisoning

Critics say that it could hurt one of the most effective regulations of the past decade.

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Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post via Getty ImagesGetty Images

The Trump Administration has proposed Supplemental Cost Finding for one of the EPA's most crucial environmental protections: Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS), which regulate coal-fired power plants. While the Trump EPA claims this proposal is following a Supreme Court mandate, environmental groups say it would hollow out one of the most effective federal regulations of the decade.

MATS were first introduced in 2011, limiting the amount of mercury that power plants can release. Mercury is a deadly neurotoxin that, when emitted from a coal plant, can end up in nearby water and soil. Through water, it can also make fish poisonous to consume. Before the regulations were introduced, coal plants in the U.S. were pumping out , most heavily in Texas and Ohio.

Thanks to the regulations, the EPA that it has prevented 11,000 premature deaths, 4,700 heart attacks and 130,000 asthma attacks every year.

The Trump EPA's on the proposal says that "emission standards and other requirements of the MATS rule...would remain in place." However, adding a cost-benefit analysis to the law would change it fundamentally. MATS regulations have been expensive: by its own estimates, the utility industry $18 billion installing clean air technology to prevent mercury and other toxins from poisoning the surrounding areas.

These regulations cannot be held to the same standards as tax cuts, critics say. If the EPA were to consider the cost of MATS regulations moving forward, they would unravel.

"If this disgraceful proposal is finalized," Mary Anne Hitt of the Sierra Club, "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 [Acting EPA Administrator] Andrew Wheeler and Donald Trump proposed today 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."

The mercury regulation is not universally opposed within the coal industry. While the industry might have opposed the legislation at the forefront, by this point the MATS equipment is in place. In a letter to the Trump EPA, a trade group for utilities "units that retired in part due to MATS — along with other regulatory requirements, low natural gas prices, resource planning initiatives, and a variety of other factors — have been decommissioned and cannot be reinstated."

One person who has not given up the fight against MATS regulations has been Trump ally Robert Murray of Murray Energy. Using legal language similar to the Trump EPA's proposal, Murray Energy to review MATS regulations in 2016. Before his current role, Acting Administrator Wheeler was for the company.

Once an open opponent of the regulations, Wheeler's proposal could now fundamentally change them.

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