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EPA's independent science board says agency ignored its advice on mercury rule

EPA's independent science board says agency ignored its advice on mercury rule
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The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) independent board of science advisers took the agency to task Tuesday for ignoring its advice when revising Obama-era protections for mercury pollution from power plants.

In a draft released by the EPA’s Science Advisory Board (SAB), members say their recommendations “do not seem to have been taken into consideration in the published analysis.”

Under the Obama administration, the EPA’s Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) rule was projected to save between $37 billion and $90 billion dollars when taking into account savings on public health. Under the Trump administration's proposal, the estimate has been reduced to between $4 million and $6 million.

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This is at least the second time the proposal has been criticized this month. Economists criticized the cost-benefit analysis used by the EPA to justify the changes in the rule, saying the flawed analysis essentially zeros out “co-benefits,” including the other toxins that would be removed by pollution controls at power plants that would ultimately benefit public health.

The review by the SAB lists a number of scientific studies that back up the critique of economists, arguing the EPA failed to consider the wide health benefits that would result from better controlling mercury pollution and underestimated the neurological damage that comes from being exposed to it.

The SAB also digs into the EPA’s analysis on how families might be exposed to mercury from freshwater fish, arguing the EPA needs to include all types of fish and consider how bioaccumulation of mercury would impact all ages. 

An EPA spokesperson stressed the feedback was only a draft.

“EPA always appreciates and respects the work and advice of the SAB. The reports they posted are a draft and will be discussed at their next meeting. The commentary and reports may potentially be revised by the SAB members as they strive for a consensus on these documents. The final commentary and reports will be developed soon after the public meeting and then sent to the administrator,” a spokesperson said by email.

The latest EPA MATS proposal doesn’t roll back the rule itself, but changing the cost-benefit analysis associated with it would open up the agency to swift legal challenges, something critics worry could hinder future administrations from using the full power of the Clean Air Act.