Last December the Environmental Protection Agency proposed a rule to weaken part of the Obama-era Mercury & Air Toxics Standards (MATS), regulation that helps limit the amounts of mercury and other toxic pollutants that can be emitted by power plants. While the latest proposal didn’t seek to reverse MATS, its purpose was to limit how the government can calculate health benefits resulting from regulations in the future. Most utilities lobbied to keep the rule in place (as they had already spent the money to comply) and yesterday a bipartisan group of senators wrote a letter to newly appointed EPA administrator (and former coal lobbyist) Andrew Wheeler urging that the agency withdraw December’s proposed rule. Additionally, dozens of mothers and environmental activists testified at the EPA asking the agency to protect MATS.
The group of senators led by Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Tom Carper (D-Del.) (with support from Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine), Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio)) stated that:
“We support the Mercury Rule because cleaner air means better health, a better economy, and better jobs for residents of our states. As a result of the Mercury Rule, power plants are emitting nearly 90 percent less mercury than a decade ago and we are already seeing the public health benefits” adding that “if EPA finds that it is no longer ‘appropriate and necessary’ to regulate mercury emissions from coal and oil fired power plants, it could lead to the undoing, or weakening, of the Mercury Rule. This could result in installed mercury and air toxic control technology to be turned off, erasing all the benefits we have seen from the Mercury Rule.“
As Power Magazine reported, “the senators’ position aligns with major trade groups, like the Edison Electric Institute, which claim owners and operators of coal and oil units have invested more than $18 billion to comply with the rule since it became effective in 2012. In their letter, the senators noted the last compliance deadline for MATS “passed more than two years ago and the utility industry has repeatedly stated that they support the Mercury Rule and that no changes are necessary.””
Environmental groups supported the bipartisan letter and highlighted the crucial benefit of MATS. NRDC explained that “Each year, the standards prevent up to 11,000 premature deaths, 13,000 asthma attacks, and nearly 5,000 heart attacks. In fact, MATS delivers up to $90 billion in health benefits.” The League of Conservation Voters explained that air pollution disproportionately affects minority communities with dangerous health consequences:
A staggering 68% of African Americans—and 2 of 5 Latinos—live within 30 miles of a coal-fired power plant. The #PoisonPlan allowing more mercury emissions from coal and oil-fired power plans, backed by @EPAAWheeler is not just dangerous: it's deeply unjust.
— LCV (@LCVoters) March 18, 2019
Why This Matters: The fact that utilities and Senate Republicans want to keep the Mercury Rule in place highlights how jarring it is that that a former coal lobbyist is now at the helm of the agency tasked with protecting the health and safety of Americans. EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler used to be a highly-paid lobbyist for Murray Energy and from his actions, one could conclude that his allegiances have stayed with his former employer as he has been an adept conduit between coal industry executives and the Trump administration. Wheeler has been hard at work implementing his former clients’ regulatory rollback wishlist even if the implications will cost American lives–particularly those from vulnerable communities who don’t have the means to advocate for themselves. The scary part is that Wheeler will be far more effective at this task than his predecessor Scott Pruitt, as he knows how to operate under the radar and lay the groundwork for regulatory rollbacks. For instance, he casually stated his justification for the MATS rollback by casting doubt over the use of health impacts in federal rulemaking, in an interview with The Washington Post last fall he states that “I just think it’s a little fuzzy math when you say, ‘Reduce mercury and we have all these other benefits over here,’ as the shiny object.”