Trump dismantling mercury pollution ban exemplifies embrace of coal

Trump dismantling mercury pollution ban exemplifies embrace of coal
© Getty Images

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is in the business of protecting public health and our environment — or at least it used to be. The agency and its acting administrator, a former coal lobbyist, have been waging an offensive on public health protections, rather than fulfilling its mission to safeguard Americans from pollution. The most recent is its attempt to dismantle mercury pollution limits, which have been a success story both economically and from the standpoint of public health. 

Today, the agency’s leadership isn’t denying that mercury is a dangerous neurotoxin or that more kids won’t be harmed — they just don’t seem to care. That’s a failure of political and moral leadership that puts partisanship ahead of governing for the benefit of all Americans.  

ADVERTISEMENT

Yet, in a nation overcome by polarization, her are a progressive woman and an evangelical, pro-life pastor finding common ground on this argument. While the current political landscape may obscure this fact, individuals with major differences can find ways to work together. We are living proof that they can — especially when it comes to protecting our environment and public health. 

In 2011, we brought together evangelicals and the Obama EPA to protect children through a federal safeguard called the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS). We set aside our differences for the benefit of our shared mission: to defend children from the brain-damaging and life-threatening impacts of mercury pollution from coal-fired power plants. Mercury pollution deposits into rivers and streams across the country and is consumed by children, pregnant women and nursing mothers.

Over the past seven-plus years, we watched as 99.9 percent of American utilities complied. We took pride in the 80 percent reduction in mercury and other pollutants that pose risks to our lives and environment. This work was accomplished without threat to the reliable supply of electricity or to affordable consumer prices. 

It led us to a newfound respect for one another as we celebrated a deal done well: improved health outcomes for millions of kids today and for years to come. MATS was a victory we could always look back on with pride. Even the largest utility association, the Edison Electric Institute, wrote to Acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler in his first few days in office to leave MATS in place. 

Unfortunately, this administration could not pass up an opportunity to defend coal, even if it meant stranded assets and lost revenues for utilities. On the Friday between Christmas and New Year’s — in the midst a government shutdown — the EPA proposed a rollback of MATS. Specifically, the Trump EPA is seeking to force the EPA to ignore “co-benefits.” This refers to the broad range of air pollution reductions that occur simultaneously when control equipment is operating — mainly reductions in soot and smog.  

These reductions have real public health benefits, but EPA leadership wants to ignore them. This runs contrary to guidance to federal agencies issued by the Bush administration in 2003: “Your analysis should look beyond the direct benefits and direct costs of your rule-making and consider any important ancillary benefits and countervailing risks,” which is exactly what EPA did when it considered the full health benefits of MATS pollution control equipment in 2011.

If their proposed rule is finalized, it will only be a matter of time before major Trump donors and former clients of EPA’s current leadership ask the courts to strip the standards themselves. In fact, the proposal invites comment on whether the EPA itself should just go ahead and remove the pollution control requirements in the first place.

ADVERTISEMENT

Now, EPA leadership claims that the entire argument is moot since utilities would voluntarily keep their existing control equipment online regardless of the status of the MATS rule. That’s not what happened prior to the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule when acid rain allowances were plentiful and cheap. Control equipment at some of the largest and dirtiest power plants sat idle because it was cheaper to pollute and buy allowances than to take the energy penalty associated with running the equipment. 

We do not believe that this proposed MATS rollback will square with Americans, be they conservative, liberal, or somewhere in between. All God’s children deserve the right to “have life, and to have it to the full” (John 10:10). It is time EPA leadership commits to the agency’s mission, follows the law, respects science, and does their jobs. It is time to do the right thing for our children by summoning the moral and political courage to defend the existing MATS rule.  

Gina McCarthy served as EPA administrator during the Obama administration from 2013 to 2017.

Rev. Mitch Hescox is the president and CEO of The Evangelical Environmental Network.