Coal-fired power plants might soon be able to spew more pollutants into the air — including mercury, which is linked to developmental disorders and respiratory illnesses — after the Trump administration announced on Friday it plans to weaken legal justification for current regulations, according to The New York Times.
The limits on mercury, set in 2011, were the first federal standards to restrict some of the most hazardous pollutants emitted by coal plants and were considered one of former President Barack Obama’s signature environmental achievements. Since then, scientists have said, mercury pollution from power plants has declined more than 80 percent nationwide.
President Trump’s new proposal does not repeal the regulation, known as the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, but it would lay the groundwork for doing so by weakening a key legal justification for the measure. The long-term impact would be significant: It would weaken the ability of the E.P.A. to impose new regulations in the future by adjusting the way the agency measures the benefits of curbing pollutants, giving less weight to the potential health gains.
The Environmental Protection Agency said in a statement that the cost of reducing mercury from power plants “dwarfs” the monetary savings in health costs.
Acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler signed off on the proposal on Thursday and from his desk, it will move to the Federal Register in the coming weeks, at which time the public will have 60 days to comment before the rule becomes final.
The original rule required power plants to reduce emissions of mercury and other toxic pollutants by more than 90 percent over five years. Mercury is a neurotoxin that can damage the brain and nervous system in young children, leading to lower I.Q. and impaired motor skills. The Obama administration estimated that the measure would prevent as many as 11,000 premature deaths from asthma, other respiratory diseases or heart attacks.
Estimates like that, however, are at the heart of the current dispute. The federal government is required to take into account both the costs and health benefits when considering pollution regulations. Trump administration officials say the Obama E.P.A. inflated benefits and underestimated costs.
The Obama administration found up to $6 million annually in health benefits directly from curbing mercury. But it further justified the regulation by citing an additional $80 billion in health benefits a year by, among other things, preventing the 11,000 premature deaths. That came not from curbing mercury itself but from the reduction in particulate matter linked to heart and lung disease that also occurs when cutting mercury emissions.
Other health benefits are more difficult to measure in terms of dollars, such as “avoiding lost I.Q. points in infants (or other fetal harm), which has been linked to pregnant women eating mercury-contaminated fish”, so the Obama administration argued against using a strict cost-benefit analysis, The Times noted.
This is where the Trump administration is looking to make a change: the new proposal would only consider benefits for which a dollar amount can be determined.
The proposed rule recognizes that difficult-to-quantify benefits exist, but said “the administrator has concluded that the identification of these benefits is not sufficient, in light of the gross imbalance of monetized costs.”
If the proposal is finalized and the regulation weakened, the rule will become easier to challenge in court, experts told the Times.
“There is a likelihood that this rule-making will be the administration’s flagship effort to permanently change the way the federal government considers health benefits,” said Janet McCabe, who ran the E.P.A.’s air office under Mr. Obama.
She said an overhaul of the mercury rule could result in utilities opting to no longer run pollution controls, despite having already installed them, because costs that are not federally mandated can no longer be passed on to ratepayers. “If that’s the case, we will see higher emissions of mercury, arsenic, acid gases and the particulate matters that are also captured along with those pollution controls,” Ms. McCabe said.