EPA restores rule to limit power-plant mercury emissions

In a reversal of a Trump-era action, the Environmental Protection Agency said Monday it will resume enforcement of a rule that limits power plant emissions of mercury and other hazardous pollutants.

The EPA action restores a rule imposed under President Barack Obama and continues a practice in which the Biden administration reinstates environmental protections loosened under President Donald Trump. The 2012 rule requires significant reductions in emissions of mercury, acid gases and other harmful pollutants, primarily by coal-fired power plants.

EPA said its actions would improve public health, including reducing the risk of heart attacks and cancer and avoiding neurodevelopmental delays in children.

“Sound science makes it clear that we need to limit mercury and toxins in the air to protect children and vulnerable communities from dangerous pollution,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said in a statement. “EPA is committed to aggressively reducing pollution from the power sector so that all people, regardless of ZIP code or amount of money in their pocket, can breathe clean air and live healthy and productive lives.”

President Joe Biden has set a goal to make the U.S. electricity sector carbon-neutral by 2035, but a sweeping, $555 billion plan to promote clean energy such as wind and solar power remains stalled in Congress, following an objection by Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.

Even without legislation, Biden can pursue his climate agenda through rules and regulations. But those can be undone by subsequent presidents, as demonstrated by the mercury rule and other environmental actions taken under Trump.

The EPA has announced a series of regulatory actions under Regan, including a plan to impose stronger limits on tailpipe emissions from cars and trucks and tighten restrictions on emissions of methane, a leading contributor to global warming.

The Interior Department also has announced approval of large-scale solar projects in California and other states and backed major offshore wind projects along the East Coast.

Still, Biden’s agenda remains at risk and could be jeopardized further by a Supreme Court case scheduled to be heard in late February. Justices will hear arguments in a case brought by West Virginia that could undercut EPA’s ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants under the Clean Air Act.

The Trump administration gutted the mercury rule on power plants in 2020, saying the earlier rule amounted to regulatory overreach that imposed undue harm on the power sector. Andrew Wheeler, the former coal lobbyist who headed the EPA under Trump, said the 2020 action balanced the rule’s cost to utilities with public safety.

In reversing that decision, the EPA said the Trump-era action was “based on a fundamentally flawed interpretation of the Clean Air Act that improperly ignored or undervalued vital health benefits from reducing hazardous air pollution from power plants.”

Based on a thorough review of the benefits, the “reasonable costs of controls” and other factors, “EPA is proposing to reaffirm that it is appropriate and necessary to regulate emissions of hazardous air pollutants from coal- and oil-fired power plants,” the agency said.

Environmental groups welcomed the change, which they had been urging for months.

“EPA has a clear authority and responsibility to protect Americans from mercury and other toxic pollution from power plants, and today’s finding reflects that,” said Michael Panfil, a lawyer for the Environmental Defense Fund.

The next step is to strengthen the Obama-era rule, Panfil and other environmentalists said.

“While the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards have been successful, there are still many coal plants that release significant amounts of mercury pollution and put American families at risk,” he said.

The Obama-era rule led to what electric utilities say was an $18 billion cleanup of mercury and other toxins from the smokestacks of coal-fired power plants. The rule was credited with curbing mercury’s devastating neurological damage to children and prevented thousands of premature deaths annually, among other public health benefits.

Most coal-fired power plants have already made the technological upgrades required by the 2012 rule. Coal-fired power plants are the largest single manmade source of mercury pollutants, which enter the food chain through fish and other items that people consume.

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