EPA proposes new rule that could allow fewer restrictions on toxins

Uncovered coal trains

The Trump administration's Environmental Protection Agency is taking aim at an Obama-era regulation that seeks to reduce mercury pollution from coal-fired power plants.

Under the direction of acting administrator Andrew Wheeler, the EPA is now questioning whether it was appropriate to include these additional benefits.

"EPA has managed to walk a very fine line", said Jeffrey Holmstead, a partner at the firm Bracewell who represents several utilities and who headed the agency's air and radiation office under President George W. Bush.

Consequently, the Trump Administration's EPA is leaving the current MATS rule in place while undercutting the justification for the rule in such a way that could preclude more stringent mercury standards in the future, and could possibly set the stage for looser rules in the future.

Mercury causes brain damage, learning disabilities and other birth defects in children, among other harm.

The vast majority of utility companies, which estimate they have already spent about $18 billion installing clean-air technology since the rule was imposed, have said the proposed changes are now of little benefit to them and have urged the Trump administration to leave the measure in place.

The proposal, which now goes up for public comment, is the latest Trump administration move that changes estimates of the costs and payoffs of regulations in arguing for relaxing Obama-era environmental protections.

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Mercury exposure is linked to developmental disorders and respiratory illnesses.

The National Mining Association praised the move, saying the mercury regulations are "punitive" and "massively unbalanced". It said the standards have markedly reduced mercury in the environment and improved public health.

It said cost of the Mercury and Air Toxic Standards Act ranged from $7.4 to $9.6 billion a year with benefits from regulating hazardous air pollutant emissions ranging from $4 to $6 million a year.

Environmental groups say federal and state limits have helped cut mercury emissions from power plants by 85 percent since 2006.

The Obama administration also broadly accepted that it's hard to put a specific dollar-figure on some health benefits - for instance, avoiding lost IQ points in infants (or other fetal harm), which has been linked to pregnant women eating mercury-contaminated fish.

"Although an analysis of all benefits and costs in accordance with generally recognized benefit-cost analysis practices is appropriate for informing the public about the potential effects of any regulatory action. this does not mean that equal consideration of all benefits and costs, including co-benefits, is appropriate for the specific statutory appropriate and necessary finding called for under CAA section 112 (n)(1)(A)."
"It's a very different calculus".

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