The Biden administration has restored the legal justification for regulating releases of toxic mercury from coal- and oil-fired power plants after the Trump administration made the rule easier to challenge in court.
In 2020 the Trump administration undercut the legal basis for limiting emissions of mercury and other toxic substances like arsenic from the plants.
The Trump administration did not change the substance of the rule itself, but made it more open to court challenges from industry.
It did so by rescinding the Obama-era determination that it is “appropriate and necessary” to regulate the pollutants.
The Trump administration spurred legal action from the coal company Westmoreland Mining that attempted to knock out the pollution limits. Mark DeLaquil, outside litigation counsel for Westmoreland, told The Hill on Friday that the case had already been halted.
DeLaquil added, in an interview prior to the EPA’s announcement, that the company would evaluate whether it is appropriate to continue its lawsuit once the EPA reestablished the “appropriate and necessary” finding.
Mercury can cause brain and nervous system damage with in-utero exposure, and can cause kidney problems in both adults and children. Meanwhile, exposure to other substances limited by the rule such as arsenic, chromium and nickel can cause cancer.
The EPA said on Friday that it was leaving the substance of the standards unchanged while it was restoring their legal justification.
The agency said in a fact sheet that the rule has been “extremely effective” at keeping power plant pollution out of the air. Mercury emissions from power plants dropped by 86 percent between 2010 and 2017, according to the EPA. Over that time period, emissions of non-mercury metals dropped by 81 percent.
“This finding ensures the continuation of these critical, life-saving protections while advancing President Biden’s commitment to making science-based decisions and protecting the health and wellbeing of all people and all communities,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said in a press release.
Republicans, meanwhile, criticized the move as anti-coal.
“We’ve experienced the damage these regulations have done across our country, including in West Virginia. It’s not surprising this administration is returning to these Obama-era rules, which resulted in coal facilities closed and the livelihoods of entire towns decimated,” said a statement from Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (W.Va.), the top Republican on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
While environmentalists cheered the Biden administration’s decision to restore the legal basis, some also called for strengthening the rule itself.
Vickie Patton, the Environmental Defense Fund’s general counsel, particularly pointed to less stringent standards included for a certain type of coal in a recent interview with The Hill.
“Those loopholes mean that there are coal plants in our country that can do far more in addressing toxic mercury pollution and there are coal plants across our country that can do far more in meeting modern emissions standards for non-mercury metals and we need to modernize these protections to ensure healthier, longer lives for millions of people,” she said.
— Updated at 4:40 p.m.
Shelley Moore Capito
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