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EPA Wants Coal Plants to Emit More Toxic Mercury

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Coal-fired power plant in Wyoming. Greg Goebel / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

The Trump administration is proposing to significantly weaken a rule that limits the amount of mercury and other toxic emissions from coal plants, the New York Times reported on Sunday.

Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist and acting administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), has drafted a plan that would undermine the 2011 Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) and has sent the proposal to the White House Office of Management and Budget, according to the Washington Post.


Burning coal releases harmful byproducts such as mercury, which can pollute the environment and harm the nervous systems of children and fetuses.

The Obama-era standard found between $4 million to $6 million in health benefits from mercury reduction alone, but also justified the regulation for its "co-benefits" of reducing pollution of soot and nitrogen oxide from power plants. In all, the rule's total value was estimated to save between $37 billion to $90 billion each year due to air quality improvements, as well as preventing up to 11,000 premature deaths, 4,700 heart attacks and 130,000 asthma attacks every year, the previous administration said then.

The regulation has had a contentious and litigious history, but in 2015 the Supreme Court upheld the rule and the utility industry has complied with the standards ever since. However, installing mercury pollution scrubbers has cost the sector $9.6 billion a year, "making it the most expensive clean air regulation ever put forth by the federal government," the New York Times wrote.

Wheeler's proposal, according to the Times, does not eliminate MATS but would direct the EPA to exclude the "co-benefits" when considering the economic impact of a regulation.

EPA spokesman John Konkus explained to the Post that "the MATS Rule was an egregious example of the Obama administration's indifference toward required cost benefit analysis."

But John Walke, Clean Air director at the Natural Resources Defense Council called the move a "sweeping attack on considering the benefits of cutting hazardous pollution from coal plants."

"It's the first legal step toward eliminating mercury, lead and other dangerous pollution standards entirely," he said in a statement received by EcoWatch. "And what the Trump EPA is pursuing—the fraudulent denial of real-world benefits from clean air and climate safeguards—is the unholy grail of the polluting industry and its lobbyists for decades."

The Sierra Club noted that Wheeler's proposal directly benefits one of his former clients, coal company Murray Energy, as well as EPA's assistant administrator William Wehrum, a former coal industry lawyer.

"If finalized, this shameful plan would undermine standards that have already been widely implemented, exposing our kids to more toxic mercury and arsenic just so Andrew Wheeler and Bill Wehrum can appease a handful of their former clients in the coal industry," Mary Anne Hitt, senior director of Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign, said in a press release. "This disgraceful move by Wheeler and Wehrum directly endangers the health of our kids and we will do everything we can to stop it."

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Democratic presidential hopefuls Joe Biden and Senator Bernie Sanders greet each other with a safe elbow bump before the start of the Democratic Party 2020 presidential debate in a CNN Washington Bureau studio in Washington, DC on March 15, 2020. Mandel Ngan / AFP / Getty Images

By Jake Johnson

Unity Task Forces formed by presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders unveiled sweeping party platform recommendations Wednesday that—while falling short of progressive ambitions in a number of areas, from climate to healthcare—were applauded as important steps toward a bold and just policy agenda that matches the severity of the moment.

"We've moved the needle a lot, especially on environmental justice and upping Biden's ambition," said Sunrise Movement co-founder and executive director Varshini Prakash, a member of the Biden-Sanders Climate Task Force. "But there's still more work to do to push Democrats to act at the scale of the climate crisis."

The climate panel—co-chaired by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and former Secretary of State John Kerry—recommended that the Democratic Party commit to "eliminating carbon pollution from power plants by 2035," massively expanding investments in clean energy sources, and "achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions for all new buildings by 2030."

In a series of tweets Wednesday night, Ocasio-Cortez—the lead sponsor of the House Green New Deal resolution—noted that the Climate Task Force "shaved 15 years off Biden's previous target for 100% clean energy."

"Of course, like in any collaborative effort, there are areas of negotiation and compromise," said the New York Democrat. "But I do believe that the Climate Task Force effort meaningfully and substantively improved Biden's positions."

 

The 110 pages of policy recommendations from the six eight-person Unity Task Forces on education, the economy, criminal justice, immigration, climate change, and healthcare are aimed at shaping negotiations over the 2020 Democratic platform at the party's convention next month.

Sanders said that while the "end result isn't what I or my supporters would've written alone, the task forces have created a good policy blueprint that will move this country in a much-needed progressive direction and substantially improve the lives of working families throughout our country."

"I look forward to working with Vice President Biden to help him win this campaign," the Vermont senator added, "and to move this country forward toward economic, racial, social, and environmental justice."

Biden, for his part, applauded the task forces "for helping build a bold, transformative platform for our party and for our country."

"I am deeply grateful to Bernie Sanders for working with us to unite our party and deliver real, lasting change for generations to come," said the former vice president.

On the life-or-death matter of reforming America's dysfunctional private health insurance system—a subject on which Sanders and Biden clashed repeatedly throughout the Democratic primary process—the Unity Task Force affirmed healthcare as "a right" but did not embrace Medicare for All, the signature policy plank of the Vermont senator's presidential bid.

Instead, the panel recommended building on the Affordable Care Act by establishing a public option, investing in community health centers, and lowering prescription drug costs by allowing the federal government to negotiate prices. The task force also endorsed making all Covid-19 testing, treatments, and potential vaccines free and expanding Medicaid for the duration of the pandemic.

"It has always been a crisis that tens of millions of Americans have no or inadequate health insurance—but in a pandemic, it's potentially catastrophic for public health," the task force wrote.

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, a former Michigan gubernatorial candidate and Sanders-appointed member of the Healthcare Task Force, said that despite major disagreements, the panel "came to recommendations that will yield one of the most progressive Democratic campaign platforms in history—though we have further yet to go."

 

Observers and advocacy groups also applauded the Unity Task Forces for recommending the creation of a postal banking system, endorsing a ban on for-profit charter schools, ending the use of private prisons, and imposing a 100-day moratorium on deportations "while conducting a full-scale study on current practices to develop recommendations for transforming enforcement policies and practices at ICE and CBP."

Marisa Franco, director of immigrant rights group Mijente, said in a statement that "going into these task force negotiations, we knew we were going to have to push Biden past his comfort zone, both to reconcile with past offenses and to carve a new path forward."

"That is exactly what we did, unapologetically," said Franco, a member of the Immigration Task Force. "For years, Mijente, along with the broader immigrant rights movement, has fought to reshape the narrative around immigration towards racial justice and to focus these very demands. We expect Biden and the Democratic Party to implement them in their entirety."

"There is no going back," Franco added. "Not an inch, not a step. We must only move forward from here."

Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.

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