‘Rotten’ Math: EPA Wants to Let Power Plants Pump Mercury Into Air Again

© AP Photo / Branden Campcoal-fired Plant Scherer, one of the nation's top carbon dioxide emitters, stands in the distance in Juliette, Ga
coal-fired Plant Scherer, one of the nation's top carbon dioxide emitters, stands in the distance in Juliette, Ga - Sputnik International
The Trump administration seeks to implement a cost-benefit analysis into its pollution regulations, weighing individual chemicals separately from wider human costs. The move could see toxins like mercury pumped into the atmosphere along with other dangerous pollutants - a shed cost sure to satisfy industrial friends of the administration.

The US Environmental Protection Agency's acting administrator Andrew Wheeler said in an interview Monday that the agency's present methods of calculating the benefits of particular emissions rules, which judge not just the specific material being targeted but also other benefits, are "fuzzy math."

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The EPA has been moving for a while to loosen regulations on power plants, including rules on carbon dioxide and mercury emissions. Last month, the agency proposed the removal of a rule aimed at curbing leaks of hydrofluorocarbons, a potent greenhouse gas, the Washington Post noted, and a proposal sent by the agency to the White House on Friday seeks to recalculate the costs and benefits of controlling plant emissions of mercury, a powerful neurotoxin.

In 2011, the agency's Mercury and Air Toxic Standards (MATS) Rule laid down standards for mercury emissions that cost the power industry roughly $18 billion in new smokestack "scrubbers" that have reduced emissions of the liquid metal by nearly 70 percent, according to National Resources Defense Council data.

The scrubbers don't just catch mercury, though; they catch nitrous oxide — a major destroyer of the atmosphere's protective ozone layer — as well as soot, the carbon particulate matter produced by hydrocarbon combustion that is a major cause of cancer.

So while the EPA estimated that only limiting mercury would result in $6 million in public health benefits annually (as compared with the $9.6 billion estimated cost of industry compliance), the wider reductions in other pollutants were estimated to save between $37 billion and $90 billion in annual health costs and lost workdays, preventing up to 11,000 premature deaths each year and 4,700 heart attacks, the Post noted.

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In June 2018, then-EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt blasted existing environmental regulation calculation methods, saying, "The previous administration inflated the benefits and underestimated the costs of its regulations through questionable cost-benefit analysis."

In other words, the EPA under Trump wants to end this wider cost-benefit analysis and focus only on how regulations affect the specific materials they target.

Critics, however, have attacked that very system of "so-called risk-benefit analysis, which puts a dollar value on people's' lives and health and then weighs that against the cost to stop the pollution," as Fred Magdoff, professor emeritus of plant and soil science at the University of Vermont, described it to Sputnik Tuesday. He called these calculations "rotten."

Magdoff, who is also co-author of the book "What Every Environmentalist Needs to Know About Capitalism," argued that "clean air regulations, as well as clean water regulations, should aim to reduce pollutants that harm humans and other organisms to as low a level as possible. Period."

"Why should businesses have the right to pollute common resources on which we all depend, such as air and water?" he asked. "The changes proposed have been made for the sole purpose of allowing higher levels of pollution so that companies will have greater profits."

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The EPA has increasingly moved from gamekeeper to poacher since US President Donald Trump took office in early 2017, deregulating one industry after another under the aegis of its former administrator, Pruitt, the ex-Oklahoma attorney general who made a career out of suing the agency he was put in charge of last year for just the sort of environmental protections he set about removing. Pruitt departed the agency in July under mass political pressure, the most acute of which took the form of an irate mother in a DC restaurant who told him to resign, Sputnik reported.

Wheeler has scarcely deviated from Pruitt's course, though, being just as connected to the industry he is now in charge of regulating. Wheeler has long served as a Washington lobbyist on behalf of coal companies like Murray Energy Corporation, whose CEO, Robert E. Murray, is a major Trump backer, and Wheeler is number two in the Washington Coal Club, a federation of more than 300 coal producers, lawmakers, business leaders and policy experts dedicated to preserving our dirtiest fossil fuel.

Wheeler isn't alone in robbing the henhouse: the EPA's top clean air official, William Wehrum, has a long resume of legal services provided for companies that run coal-fired power plants, the New York Times noted on September 30.

The deleterious effects of mercury on the human brain are well-documented. From the legendary "mad hatters" driven insane by use of the chemical in the hat manufacturing trade to the banning of mercury in thermometers destined for patients' mouths, the liquid metal has "no known safe level of exposure," according to the National Institute of Health (NIH).

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"Ideally, neither children nor adults should have any mercury in their bodies because it provides no physiological benefit," a 2011 study hosted by the agency says. "Prevention is the key to reducing mercury poisoning… Mercury is ubiquitous and persistent. Mercury is a global pollutant, bio-accumulating, mainly through the aquatic food chain, resulting in a serious health hazard for children."

"Children are considered especially vulnerable to environmental threats… More than one system can be susceptible, and different pathology may occur depending on the dose and timing of exposure. The fetus and infant are especially vulnerable to mercury exposures. Of special interest is the development of the central nervous system… Damage of the nervous system caused by mercury is likely to be permanent. Neurotoxic effects can result from prenatal or early postnatal exposure."

Despite this danger, in last month's proposed rollback, the EPA removed language in its analysis saying that children, elderly and the poor "are most vulnerable to climate-related health effects," the Post noted.

Scott Edwards, co-director of Food & Water Justice, told Sputnik that "there's a cast of characters here who have been working for literally decades to make sure that power plants — this is specifically about power plants — that power plants get to keep emitting, in particular, mercury."

"What Wheeler's trying to do here is say: 'You can't look at all those other costs outside the direct cost of mercury elimination,'" Edwards told Sputnik. "So you can't look at particulate matter; you can't look at all these other co-pollutant reduction benefits that are coming out. And that way it reduces the benefit number to a much smaller amount and allows industry and a bad EPA like this EPA to argue, ‘Well, the costs really outweigh the benefits, so we're not implementing these strict controls.'"

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"It's a careful orchestration by industry, that keeps coming back and making these arguments over and over and over again to try to peel away any level of protection. It's offensive on so many levels — we as an organization are opposed to even the notion that you should be sticking prices on, for example, your child's asthma. How much is your child's asthma worth to you? We find the entire notion offensive of cost-benefit analysis when you're talking about human life and public health and the illness of children. And for Wheeler to pull this out on Children's Health Day is absolutely despicable," Edwards said.

"Industry doesn't have a good argument for not installing" scrubbers, Edwards said, "because these facilities are having devastating impacts on local air quality."

Edwards noted that the fact that the EPA is even weighing these questions on a cost-benefit analysis is "another increasing rollback that industry and bad governments have made in this country. It used to be that EPA had very little leeway in looking at cost versus benefit of regulatory programs — that's been eroded, so now EPA has to look at costs and benefits."

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