EPA guts rule credited with cleaning up coal-plant toxic air

The Trump administration on Thursday gutted an Obama-era rule that compelled the country’s coal plants to cut back emissions of mercury and other human health hazards, a move designed to limit future regulation of air pollutants from coal- and oil-fired power plants.

Environmental Protection Agency chief Andrew Wheeler said the rollback was reversing what he depicted as regulatory overreach by the Obama administration. “We have put in place an honest accounting method that balances” the cost to utilities with public safety, he said.

Wheeler is a former coal lobbyist whose previous clients have gotten many of the regulatory rollbacks they sought from the Trump administration.

Environmental and public health groups and Democratic lawmakers faulted the administration for pressing forward with a series of rollbacks easing pollution rules for industry — in the final six months of President Donald Trump’s current term — while the coronavirus pandemic rivets the world’s attention.

With rollbacks on air pollution protections, the “EPA is all but ensuring that higher levels of harmful air pollution will make it harder for people to recover in the long run” from the disease caused by the coronavirus, given the lasting harm the illness does to victims hearts and lungs, said Delaware Sen. Tom Carper, the senior Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

The EPA move leaves in place standards for emissions of mercury, which damages the developing brains of children and has has been linked to a series of other ailments. But the changes greatly reduce the health benefits that regulators can consider in crafting futures rules for power plant emissions. That undermines the 2011 mercury rule and limits regulators’ ability to tackle the range of soot, heavy metals, toxic gases and other hazards from fossil fuel power plants.

The Trump administration contends the mercury cleanup was not “appropriate and necessary,” a legal benchmark under the country’s landmark Clean Air Act.

The Obama 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. EPA staffers’ own analysis said the rule curbed 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 2011 mercury rule. Many utilities have urged the Trump administration not to go ahead with Thursday’s rollbacks, fearing expensive legal battles will result.

Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund advocacy group, said the Obama-era mercury standards already had proved to be “a resounding success,” reducing mercury pollution from coal plants by more than 80 percent. “Thanks to these vital clean air protections, we all have less poison in the air we breathe and the food we eat,” Krupp said in a statement.

Coal power plants in this country are the largest single manmade source of mercury pollutants, which enter the food chain through fish and other items that people consume.

In 2017, Wheeler, while still a lobbyist, accompanied coal magnate Robert Murray on some of Murray’s calls to new Trump Cabinet members. Murray was pushing a list of desired rollbacks of regulations on coal, as well as asking for major staffing cuts at the EPA and other changes at government boards.

Trump and his administration have granted several of Murray’s requests, including scrapping an Obama-era climate change effort that would have encouraged utilities to move to cleaner forms of energy than coal.

Falling, and now plummeting, prices for natural gas and cheaper costs for solar and wind power have made it tough for coal-fired power plants in the U.S. marketplace, leading to drops in coal production and coal energy in the country despite Trump’s rescue efforts.