Mercury pollution — the slippery slope

Mercury pollution — the slippery slope
© Getty Images

In a giant favor to the coal industry, the Trump administration is poised to undermine the Mercury and Air Toxic Standards (MATS) that control mercury and other toxic air pollution from coal-fired power plants. 

Mercury is a potent neurotoxin that damages the brain of developing fetuses, increases the likelihood of heart attacks and causes serious harm to the nervous, reproductive, renal and immune systems. 

These facts have not stopped the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from proposing to revoke its previous finding that is “appropriate and necessary” to curb releases of mercury, arsenic and other hazardous air pollutants from coal- and oil-fired power plants. 


Ironically, the power industry is in compliance with MATS, which was issued by the Obama administration in 2012. Toxic emissions from power plants have fallen by more than 90 percent at a fraction of the cost originally estimated by EPA.

Almost no one wants this regulation rescinded. The electric power industry has actually asked EPA to leave MATS in place. It has installed the necessary equipment and is operating in compliance with the rule. Utility commissions have allowed most power companies to recoup their costs based on MATS compliance. The environmental, medical and public health communities, as well as environmental justice organizations that represent mostly low-income communities and people of color who live near coal-fired power plants, strongly support MATS. 

There is one clear outlier. Bob Murray, founder and chairman of the bankrupt coal company, Murray Energy. Not only is he a Trump supporter and major donor to the Trump inauguration, but following President TrumpDonald John TrumpGeraldo Rivera on Trump sowing election result doubts: 'Enough is enough now' Murkowski: Trump should concede White House race Scott Atlas resigns as coronavirus adviser to Trump MORE’s inaugural ceremony, Murray sent a wish list of actions that he thinks will save coal; killing MATS is on it. 

But killing MATS will not save coal. Coal is failing because it is cheaper to generate electricity with natural gas and, increasingly, renewable energy. 

For now, MATS remains in place. But with this devious finding that it is not appropriate or necessary to control mercury and other air toxics from power plants, EPA Administrator Andrew WheelerAndrew WheelerOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Trump administration denies permit for controversial Pebble Mine | Progressives see red flags in regulatory official on Biden transition team | EPA won't require industry to guarantee funding for toxic waste cleanups EPA won't require industry to guarantee funding for toxic waste cleanups OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Kerry says Paris climate deal alone 'is not enough' | EPA halts planned Taiwan trip for Wheeler| EPA sued over rule extending life of toxic coal ash ponds MORE is inviting the coal industry to challenge the legitimacy of the rule. There are sound legal arguments to rebut such a challenge, but there is no guarantee that they will carry the day.  


The Trump administration justifies this reckless action with a bogus economic analysis that purports to show that MATS costs more than its benefits are worth. To get that result, they inflate the cost of MATS and simply don’t count most of the benefits, including the direct benefits of controlling mercury and the indirect benefits of the reduced particulate pollution that results when mercury emissions are controlled.  

But the benefits of MATS are real, even if the EPA chooses not to count them. They include hundreds of lives saved each year, thousands of babies born annually without neurologic damage and the decrease of thousands of asthma attacks and respiratory illnesses that result in hospitalizations, lost work and school days each year.  

EPA is reversing a rule with benefits greater than its costs. It is corrupt and cruel to put people at risk for no good reason but to appease the coal industry and its champions.

Ellen Kurlansky is the former Air Policy Analyst and Advisor in EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation (1987-2018). She was instrumental in developing the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards and the Clean Power Plan, which was reversed in 2019.