US limits on coal-plant mercury emissions too costly, says EPA

Environmentalists criticise Trump administration’s efforts to roll back restrictions

A coal-burning power plant in Colstrip, Montana, October 15th, 2018. File photograph: Janie Osborne/The New York Times

A coal-burning power plant in Colstrip, Montana, October 15th, 2018. File photograph: Janie Osborne/The New York Times


The Trump administration has said limits on mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants were unnecessary as they were too costly.

The statement from the Environmental Protection Agency sparked an outcry from environmentalists who feared the next step would be looser rules favouring the coal industry at the expense of public health.

Under the Mercury and Air Toxic Standards, or Mats, enacted under former US president Barack Obama, coal-burning power plants were required to install expensive equipment to cut output of mercury, which can harm pregnant women and put infants and children at risk of developmental problems.

The Environmental Protection Agency left the 2011 emission standards in place but proposed using a different cost analysis to evaluate whether the regulation is needed, a move that paves the way for looser rules going forward. Its statement was issued on Friday during a partial government shutdown.

Since August, the Environmental Protection Agency has been reconsidering the justification for the rule. A coalition of electric utilities had said the looser rules were not needed since they have already invested billions of dollars in technology to cut emissions of mercury.

The EPA said it was “proposing that it is not ‘appropriate and necessary’ to regulate HAP (Hazardous Air Pollution) emissions from coal- and oil-fired power plants . . . because the costs of such regulation grossly outweigh the quantified HAP benefits.”

It said its reassessment showed the cost of compliance with Mats was between $7.4 billion to $9.6 billion annually, while the monetised benefits were between $4 million to $6 million.

It also said the identification of unquantified benefits was not enough to support the standards. Among such benefits, environmentalists say are reduced healthcare costs, breathing cleaner air and drinking cleaner water.

“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,” Sierra Club Beyond Coal Campaign director Mary Anne Hitt said in a statement. Mr Wheeler is a former coal industry lobbyist.

“Virtually every coal plant in the US has already met this life-saving standard, and now Trump is recklessly trying to roll it back,” she said.

Harvard research

A study published this month by Harvard University’s School of Public Health said coal-fired power plants were the top source of mercury in the US, accounting for nearly half of mercury emissions in 2015. It said the standards had markedly reduced mercury in the environment and improved public health.

Since taking office in January 2017, Mr Trump has targeted rolling back Obama-era environmental and climate protections to maximise production of domestic fossil fuels, including crude oil. US oil production is the highest in the world, above Saudi Arabia and Russia, after a boom that was triggered more than a decade ago by improved drilling technology.

The coal industry had challenged a 2016 conclusion by Obama’s administration that the rule was justified because savings to US consumers on healthcare costs would exceed compliance costs. The calculations accounted for how pollution-control equipment would reduce emissions of other harmful substances in addition to mercury.

The EPA said it will take comment for the proposal for 60 days and will hold at least one public hearing. – Reuters