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Challenging Mercury Laws May Be Next On The President’s Environmental Agenda

Now that the Trump administration has signaled it will try and rollback regulations tied carbon, methane and volatile organic compounds, it may soon turn its attention to mercury.

The US Environmental Protection Agency is examining a mercury rule first enacted by the Obama administration in 2012 that seeks to significantly curtail those insidious releases. Coal plants are the main culprit, which is a key reason why many have been forced to shut down. But President Trump ran on a platform of leveling the regulatory playing field to give the coal industry a better chance at long-term survival.

“In light of the recent change in Administration, EPA requests continuance of the oral argument to give the appropriate officials adequate time to fully review the supplemental finding,” attorneys for the US Department Justice wrote to jurists now considering arguments pertaining to the 2016 iteration of the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards rule.

Some background: In 1990, Congress passed laws to regulate mercury, although it wasn’t until George W. Bush came to office that any administration had any luck doing so. In 2006, his White House came up with a voluntary approach that was thrown out by a federal court.

The Obama administration then sought to cut those releases by 90% over five years. In 2012, its EPA finalized the rules and was subsequently sued by multiple states that included Oklahoma under the leadership of its then-attorney general, Scott Pruitt, who is now the EPA administrator.

In 2015, the US Supreme Court stepped in and ruled 5-4 against the Obama administration, saying that costs were paramount — something that the majority said the EPA had failed to properly evaluate. But it did not overturn the law. It simply remanded the case back to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.

In 2016, Obama’s EPA issued a supplemental finding to comply with the Supreme Court’s directive. Opponents of the original law sued once again, saying it will cost $9.6 billion a year. The case is now before the same court of appeals.

“The Mercury and Air Toxics Standards are already in place, saving thousands of lives every year, and helping protect our families and communities from toxic pollution,” Graham McCahan, senior attorney for the Environmental Defense Fund said, in a statement.

“Virtually every power plant in America is already in compliance with the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards,” he added. “Weakening them would be a serious threat to the safety of our food, air and water. We will continue to vigorously defend these critical health protections.”

Those same proponents of the law say that the technologies to achieve success are currently available. They also say that the benefits are worth as much as $90 billion a year, which include better health in the surrounding communities. Data collected over eight years by Penn State University for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, for example, show mercury levels 47 percent higher in areas closer to power plants.

Coal facilities are the biggest mercury contributors. Many of those units are in compliance with the new rules, according to the US Energy Information Administration. Of the roughly 276,000 megawatts of existing coal-fired electricity, older plants consisting of 88,000 megawatts follow the rules. The newer coal units have the technologies built in to achieve the desired results.

“Many of the retirement decisions have already been made,” says Rob Barnett, policy analyst with Bloomberg Intelligence, in an interview. “So I doubt too many companies will reverse course at this point.”

The U.S. Department of Energy is working with private enterprise to develop the tools to make significant cuts in mercury from coal-fired power plants. The agency has achieved at least 50 percent reductions based on 1999 levels using “activated carbon injections” that also work to cut sulfur dioxide.

The Government Accountability Office has determined that “activated carbon injections” have the potential to cut mercury emissions by 90 percent — at an average price of $3.6 million per plant.

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