EPA's proposed weakening of mercury standards is bad business

The Trump administration’s EPA proposal to weaken the landmark Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) distorts cost-benefit analysis in ways that no reasonable business would do. Savvy businesses try to achieve multiple benefits when installing new equipment and using management practices such as company wellness programs that improve employees’ health while also holding down insurance costs.

Indeed, that’s what the energy industry does when installing pollution control equipment to meet current regulatory standards. They strategically analyze a cost-effective combination of scrubbers, catalytic controls and other approaches to maximize efficiency in reducing sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, mercury, particulates and other pollutants from coal plants. Achieving these “co-benefits” is sound business practice and common sense.

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The EPA, however, is now moving in the opposite direction by undercutting its own mercury pollution reduction standards. The EPA’s MATS proposal distorts proper cost-benefit analysis by not counting all the important co-benefits. The costs are then weighed against less than the full benefits achieved. Voila! The revised calculation produces a different regulatory result by undervaluing improved public health and better environmental performance. 

The irony here: Almost all coal plant operators have already installed cost-effective modern pollution control equipment to reduce mercury emissions. The electric utility industry, environmentalists and public health groups have thus banded together to oppose EPA’s changes. The comment period for EPA’s proposed changes ends April 17. 

So why is the EPA pursuing this misguided course? To make MATS look too expensive and to more broadly skew the cost-benefit analysis that’s used for setting many regulatory standards. That’s wrong for three fundamental reasons.

1. Mercury produces severe, damaging impacts on kids’ health and the environment. Mercury is a neurotoxin that harms fetal brain development resulting in great pain to children and their families, other health issues, and huge societal and economic costs. Since EPA adopted MATS in 2011, coal plants have reduced mercury pollution by as much as 90 percent, thereby reducing public harms and health care costs.

When mercury gets into the air from coal plants and incinerators, it’s carried by precipitation into rivers and lakes, settling at the bottom. It then makes its way into tiny plants that are eaten by small fish, which, in turn, are eaten by increasingly larger fish. When those mercury-laden fish are eaten by pregnant women and women of childbearing years, the mercury gets into their bloodstreams and passes through the placental barrier causing fetal brain damage. Sadly, it’s not safe to eat the fish you catch in the Great Lakes and many other places.

2. EPA’s proposed recalculations ignore the real-world co-benefits of protecting public health and reducing multiple pollutants from combinations of mercury controls and other equipment. By undercounting the full benefits, EPA skews the cost-benefit analysis to satisfy its coal mine owner allies.

Why consider co-benefits? Because that’s what any sensible business or governmental agency does. That’s why coal plant owners install modern pollution control equipment in ways that achieve multiple, synergistic pollution reduction benefits. In short, achieve the biggest bang for their pollution control buck. 

3. Coal plant owners have already installed mercury pollution reduction equipment at a lower cost than expected. Weakening MATS now wouldn’t save them money, but it would cause children and their families more harm. It would perversely change the proper calculation of costs and benefits for setting future public health and environmental regulatory standards.

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The EPA’s flawed approach of ignoring the full benefits of MATS trumps children’s health and rational economic analysis in order to serve ideological and coal mine owners’ interests. That’s foolish policy, unsupportable economic theory and contrary to sound business practices. The American people deserve better. EPA’s misguided proposal should be scrapped and, if necessary, reversed by the courts as contrary to both law and common sense.

Howard A. Learner is the executive director of the Environmental Law & Policy Center of the Midwest. ELPC is the leading Midwest public interest environmental legal advocacy organization, and among the nation’s leaders, working to improve environmental quality, protect public health, and protect natural resources in ways that grow the regional economy. Follow him on Twitter at @HowardELP.C