EPA takes aim at Obama-era regulation of mercury at coal plants

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Sen. Tom Carper issued a statement December 28 after the Environmental Protection Agency announced that is rolling back critical protections by asserting that it is no longer "appropriate and necessary" to regulate mercury and toxic air pollution from coal and oil-fired plants under the Mercury Air Toxics Standards.

The limits on mercury, set in 2011, were the first federal standards to restrict some of the most hazardous pollutants emitted by coal plants and were considered one of former President Barack Obama's signature environmental achievements. In a letter to the EPA last summer, utilities and regulatory and labor groups said mercury emissions had been reduced by almost 90 percent over the past decade.

However, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said that the clean-up produced only a few million dollars a year in measurable health benefits and was not "appropriate and necessary".

Trump administration officials say the Obama EPA inflated benefits and underestimated costs. Mercury is a neurotoxin that can damage the brain and nervous system in young children, leading to lower IQ and impaired motor skills. Coal-fired power plants are the largest single source of mercury pollution.

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. In a statement, she said the warming climate, for example, might affect mercury's impact on the environment but the EPA's proposal could make it harder to address that.

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The National Mining Association praised the move, saying the mercury regulations are "punitive" and "massively unbalanced".

However, the EPA said it will seek comment during a 60-day public-review period on whether "we would be obligated to rescind" the Obama-era rule if the agency adopts Friday's finding that the regulation was not appropriate and necessary.

Therefore the new EPA analysis states the health benefits of mercury reduction lies between $4 million and $6 million.

"It's not unreasonable to expect that if the standards go away there will be some number of utilities that will choose to no longer operate pollution controls that they've installed", says Janet McCabe, former acting assistant administrator of the Office of Air and Radiation at EPA during the Obama administration.

It's also the administration's latest proposed move on behalf of the USA coal industry, which has been struggling in the face of competition from natural gas and other cheaper, cleaner forms of energy.