Trump administration to consider changes to Obama-era mercury rule | Environment | The Guardian

Trump administration to consider changes to Obama-era mercury rule | Environment | The Guardian

Move is part of a series of rollbacks pursued on behalf of coal interests, decisions scientists say are detrimental to public health

Move is part of a series of rollbacks pursued on behalf of coal interests, decisions scientists say are detrimental to public health

The Trump administration will reconsider the reasoning for restrictions on toxic mercury pollution from coal plants that is linked to developmental delays in children, it was announced on Friday.

The power industry has largely met the restrictions, which were imposed under former president Barack Obama, with plants either installing required controls or shutting down.

The standards will remain in place, but the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will re-evaluate the government’s argument for why they are necessary and whether they will ultimately be tightened, the agency said on Friday.

The move by the Trump administration is part of a series of environmental rollbacks pursued on behalf of coal interests, decisions scientists say are detrimental to public health.

Charles Driscoll, a professor of environmental engineering at Syracuse University, said the administration was trying to “prolong the operation, the longevity of coal-fired power plants”.

While weakening mercury standards would not bring shuttered coal plants back to life, it could help some plants stay online a little longer, opponents of the change warned before the proposal was released. The rollback could also be part of a broader Trump administration legal strategy to to benefit industry by ignoring some health benefits of cutting pollution.

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The Obama-era mercury rule counted the economic effects of curbing mercury and the societal savings from slashing other pollutants that would have come from coal plants that shut down.

The revisions to the mercury rule may be a test, designed to see whether the EPA can stop counting such benefits, called co-benefits, in future air pollution standards. That would result in weaker public health protections, as regulators would consider only a fraction of the benefits of pollution proposals and standards would appear to cost more than they are worth.

“The main reason why they want to do this is to cut the legs off EPA in terms of our ability to protect public health and natural resources from toxics that are impacting our lives today,” said the Obama-era EPA administrator Gina McCarthy.

The National Association of Clean Air Agencies, which represents a politically diverse group of state and local air regulators, argues the administration should continue to weigh co-benefits. Executive director Miles Keogh said co-benefits should be counted because they keep people from having to pay more in doctor’s bills and miss more work.

“When you quit smoking it saves you a lot of money in what you’re paying for cigarettes,” he said, “but it saves you money in other ways that’s not just what you’re paying for cigarettes.”

The mercury rule also helped reduce health problems and early deaths from the small particles of pollution people inhale from coal plants.

Trump agencies have been trying to boost coal by rescinding a slate of rules the industry opposes. For example, the EPA is weakening climate change standards for current and new coal plants, which have trouble competing with cheaper natural gas and renewable power.

In addition to emitting greenhouse gases, coal plants are the major source of mercury pollution in the US. The human body absorbs mercury through the air, land and water, and from fish that accumulate the neurotoxin as methylmercury.

The EPA has previously noted that more than 75,000 newborns in the US each year may have a higher risk of learning disabilities from in-utero methylmercury exposure.

Between 2006 and 2016, Driscoll said, mercury pollution from power plants declined 85% due to a combination of state and federal crackdowns and decline in coal use. Still, most people have mercury in their bodies.

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