President Donald Trump’s administration announced Friday that the Environmental Protection Agency is relaxing Obama-era rules preventing coal-fired power plants from releasing mercury and other dangerous pollutants into the air.
The proposed change ― which EPA acting administrator Andrew Wheeler signed on Thursday and will be up for 60 days of public comment before a final ruling goes into effect ― does not outright repeal the 2011 mercury limit regulation but paves the way for doing so by stating the program’s effectiveness should be judged only by “the benefits that can be directly translated into dollars and cents,” as The New York Times put it.
Mercury exposure is linked to developmental disorders and respiratory illnesses. The new rule would not factor in the harder-to-quantify benefits linked to preventing those health consequences, such as protecting fetuses whose intelligence could be affected in the long term by the amount of mercury their mothers ingested when they were pregnant with them.
“The administrator has concluded that the identification of these benefits is not sufficient, in light of the gross imbalance of monetized costs,” the EPA announcement read, bucking the Obama administration’s conclusion that the mercury rule should be evaluated on factors beyond monetary costs.
If the change is finalized, the mercury rule could be opened up to clearer legal challenges in court, and other clean air regulations may also be put at risk.
The change would also be a financial windfall for the coal industry. The mercury rule costs the coal industry $9.6 billion a year ― making it one of the most expensive regulations ever issued by the EPA.