By Rachel Cleetus, Union of Concerned Scientists
A couple of days after Christmas last year, during the federal government shut-down, EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler somehow found time to issue a pernicious proposal to undermine a crucial clean air rule, the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) for coal-fired power plants.
More insidiously, the proposal is an attack on long-standing legal, economic and regulatory precedent on cost-benefit analysis—and as a result could have far-reaching consequences for many other public health protections. That’s why we’re asking experts–and anybody who cares about science and public health—to weigh in and submit comments on this proposal by April 17.
UCS has just issued a new public comment guide to support those efforts.
What’s behind the EPA proposal?
The 2012 MATS standard for coal-fired power plants was aimed at addressing the single largest industrial source of mercury at the time. The standards also limit other hazardous air pollutants, including hydrogen chloride, arsenic, chromium, cadmium, and nickel. These toxic pollutants can cause or contribute to neurological damage in developing fetuses, chronic respiratory diseases, various cancers, and other severe damage to human health and ecosystems.
These first-ever standards came 30 (!) years after Congress directed the EPA to study the public health threat of air toxics from coal-fired power plants, and to limit this pollution under Section 112of the Clean Air Act if the EPA found regulation “appropriate and necessary.” The agency made and confirmed that determination several times, including in 2016 as part of a detailed supplementary finding where the agency specifically took costs of compliance into account.
Now the EPA is seeking to undermine MATS by reversing the prerequisite finding that this regulation is “appropriate and necessary.” The agency is basing its current proposal on a deeply flawed and narrow evaluation of the costs and benefits of this standard, essentially inflating its costs and stripping down its benefits, to deliver an outcome firmly tilted in favor of polluters.
Eviscerating the value of health benefits
How significant are the public health benefits of implementing MATS? Well, in 2011 the EPA estimated that once MATS was in place, each year 11,000 fewer people would die prematurely and there would be 130,000 fewer asthma attacks and and 4,700 fewer heart attacks—resulting in monetized savings on the order of $37 billion to $90 billion each year. Meanwhile they estimated costs to be on the order of $7.4 to $9.6 billion annually.
A big part of why MATS is so valuable to public health is that the same technologies and measures that help limit mercury and other toxic pollutants also help limit other harmful pollutants that are produced when coal is burnt, especially fine particulate matter (PM2.5). This simultaneous and significant reduction in multiple harmful pollutants is a major bonus for public health, worth billions of dollars annually.
Now, however, the agency is trying to ignore these clear public health benefits and focusing instead on a narrow definition of benefits that only considers the benefits from reducing the directly targeted pollutants (mercury and other air toxics) while completely eliminating the significant co-benefits of PM reductions.
What’s more, data from the US Energy Information Administration also show that the power sector’s actual costs of complying with MATS turned out to be far lower than initially estimated. The EPA’s current proposal ignores these recent data, however, and still uses the older, higher cost numbers from its 2011 regulatory impact analysis for MATS.
The craziest part of all this is that the EPA is attacking the essential foundation of MATS while claiming to leave the standard itself in place.
In a sense it has no choice: virtually all coal-fired power plants are already in compliance with MATS and utilities have already made the necessary investments in pollution control technologies. The reality is that MATS is already a fait accompli.
So why take this action now?
The Wheeler EPA has its eyes set on the more far-reaching and consequential effects of finalizing this proposal. Specifically, formalizing this distorted method of cost-benefit analysis would make it easier to weaken a range of regulations under the Clean Air Act and other public health laws, including the agency’s actions to regulate global warming emissions.
And regardless of what the agency claims, it does also put MATS on precarious ground. The end result of finalizing this egregious proposal could very well be that MATS is rescinded. It could even go as far as creating a risk that the agency removes power plants from the list of sources regulated under section 112 of the Clean Air Act (which addresses hazardous air pollutants like mercury). The agency itself acknowledges these risks by seeking comment on these specific issues in the proposal.
Taken together, these potential impacts would be a huge blow to public health—and a boon to polluters.
Send your comments to the EPA!
The mission of the EPA is to protect public health and the environment, which makes it hard to believe that the agency actually wants to argue against the value of limiting harmful emissions of mercury and air toxics—but that’s exactly what the EPA under the Trump administration is seeking to do.
If any of this sounds ludicrous to you, it should. (And you’ll probably find grim solace in my colleague Julie’s scathing takedown of rulemaking in the Trump era.)
But you can do something about it: your comments are vital to restoring science to the rule-making process. If you’re a public health expert, a legal scholar, an economist specializing in cost-benefit analysis, an expert who sees the everyday impacts of toxic pollution in your community, or a parent who worries about the impacts of mercury on children, your voice matters.
We realize that regulatory proposals and rule-making processes can be complicated, so we’ve broken it down for you in an easy-to-use comment guide. In it, we’ve highlighted four key areas for your comments and provided more information related to each of them. They include the EPA:
- refusing to consider all benefits when evaluating the “worth” of a rule;
- ignoring unquantified direct benefits of reducing air toxics;
- relying on outdated information and disregarding new information; and
- undermining the public health gains from MATS and potentially other public health protections.
Detailed, individual comments that draw on your expertise and experience are of greatest value. Were this rule to face legal challenge (which is a virtual certainty if the proposal is finalized), the EPA will have to reckon with the record of substantive comments in court.
Tell Administrator Wheeler to take back this harmful proposal and leave MATS, and its underlying foundation, in place. The public health protections we rely on are at stake.