Proposed rule discounts value of health benefits from people’s reduced exposure to mercury
In a late-December move, the Trump administration proposed modification to the Obama-era regulation governing mercury emissions that if adopted, would say the cost of regulating emissions is not supported by the health benefits.
As part of the EPA mercury standards under the Obama Administration, the cost of implementing stricter mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants was estimated to be $8 billion annually with corresponding health benefits of approximately $80 billion annually. The Obama EPA announced its mercury standards plan in 2011.
But now the Trump EPA is reducing the estimated health benefits, calculating them to be less than $10 million annually. In a press release, the agency said the proposed rule would make it compliant with federal law and a Supreme Court decision in a case brought by Michigan on mercury emissions.
“I’m going to follow the law, and I’m going to follow the Supreme Court,” EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler told the New York Times.
The EPA classifies mercury as a “powerful neurotoxin” commonly found in fish that people consume, with children and women of childbearing age especially vulnerable for negative health effects. Also at higher risk are communities where fish are consumed for subsistence.
“The Trump Administration’s proposal to change the way environmental and public health benefits are calculated in environmental protection regulations is dangerous,” said Nick Schroeck, an environmental law professor at University of Detroit Mercy School of Law.
“We still have fish consumption advisories for Great Lakes fish because of mercury” and the new interpretation of the rule could negatively impact future regulation of mercury emissions, he said. There are existing, continuing fish consumption advisories in the Great Lakes region because of high mercury levels.
”The United States and Canada have made significant progress in reducing mercury pollution” in recent years, Schroeck said, but it’s incumbent on the U.S. to show leadership on the issue as mercury travels from developing countries that lack regulations. A softening of the U.S. commitment to reduce emission standards sends the wrong message to those countries, according to Schroeck.
Others worry the change will undo progress in reducing mercury in the environment.
Former Obama EPA executive Janet McCabe said “mercury emissions from power plants have declined about 80 percent between 2011 and 2017.” She said the reduction reflects the impact of the Obama administration’s efforts.
“(The) health impacts of mercury exposure are more significant than we thought and more costly, and also mercury emissions affect local water bodies more than we thought,” she said.
Keeping mercury emissions low is critical for protecting the Great Lakes, according to McCabe, who is now a Senior Fellow at the Environmental Law and Policy Center in Chicago.
Pattern of rollbacks
The move to soften mercury regulations follows a pattern by the Trump Administration of trying to dismantle or diminish environmental programs, many from the Obama-era.
The New York Times recently documented 78 environmental rollbacks that either have been implemented or are in process since Trump took office.
Among them are the Clean Power Plan that would limit carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants and the Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule which determines which waterways come under the Clean Water Act.
WOTUS is especially important to the Great Lakes region as it could help reduce nutrient runoff that causes harmful algae blooms.
The EPA frequently claims when announcing the rollback of environmental rules that the Obama EPA was guilty of federal overreach and the new rules are designed to bring the agency into compliance with the law.
The federal overreach claim was a frequent allegation made by then-candidate Trump in the run-up to the 2016 election where he pledged to ditch regulations, especially for the coal industry and agriculture.
Eleven of the rules the administration has tried to roll back have either been overturned by courts or other challenges, according to the Times story.
The original Obama WOTUS rule was never implemented and is currently working its way through the federal court system with the likelihood that it will end up with the Supreme Court.
The proposed mercury rule is subject to a 60-day public comment period, which will begin after the rule is posted in the Federal Register. The Register is not currently being updated due to the government shutdown.