Trump’s EPA Weakens Justification for Life-Saving Mercury Pollution Rule
As many Americans fight for their lives in the midst of a respiratory pandemic, the Trump administration Thursday axed the justification for a mercury pollution rule that saves more than 10,000 lives and prevents as many as 130,000 asthma attacks each year.
The new rollback leaves mercury emission standards in place for now, but changes how their benefits are calculated so that the economic cost takes precedence over public health gains, The New York Times reported. The move provides a legal opening to challenge other pollution controls even as evidence suggests that exposure to air pollution might increase one's chances of dying from the new coronavirus.
"This is an absolute abomination," former Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) head under Obama and Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) president Gina McCarthy said in a statement. "This final rule will increase the risk of more kids with asthma and brain damage, and more people with cancer. Undermining these vital safeguards now also directly threatens the people hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, making it even harder to breathe and putting people with respiratory illnesses at even higher risk."
BREAKING: The @EPA just finalized a rule that threatens federal standards for mercury, lead and other toxic air pol… https://t.co/EitX8yu4k5— NRDC 🌎🏡 (@NRDC 🌎🏡)1587072443.0
The Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS), first passed in 2011 when McCarthy headed the EPA's Office of Air and Radiation, were the first of their kind to limit toxic emissions like mercury and lead from coal-fired power plants. These metals are particularly harmful to pregnant women and the brains of children.
Between 2006, when states first began controlling mercury, and 2016, when the MATS took full effect, mercury emissions declined 85 percent, The Washington Post pointed out. At the center of Thursday's decision is not the standards themselves, however, but how they were justified.
The Obama administration argued that, while the standards would cost the industry as much as $9.6 billion a year, the country as a whole would save between $37 billion and $90 billion in public health costs. However, these calculations considered co-benefits of the mercury rule such as a decline in soot and smog-causing pollution.
In the rule released Thursday, the EPA said it was not appropriate to consider these side benefits.
"We have put in place an honest accounting mechanism," EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler told reporters Thursday, as The Washington Post reported.
According to the EPA's new accounting mechanism, the rule would cost industry $7.4 to $9.6 billion a year and only generate annual savings of $4 to $6 million in mercury-specific health costs, Reuters pointed out.
"One would not say it is even rational, never mind appropriate, to impose billions in economic cost in return for a few dollars in health benefits," Wheeler said, according to The Washington Post.
However, complying with the rule cost utilities less than Obama estimated, at a final price tag of around $3 billion a year from 2012 to 2018. And many oppose weakening the rule now that they have already paid to comply with it.
"The repeal of the underlying legal basis for MATS introduces new uncertainty and risk for companies that still are recovering the costs for installing those control technologies," utility trade group Edison Electric Institute said in a statement reported by Reuters.
The only ones pleased with the rollback are coal companies. The 2011 rule encouraged utilities to switch from coal-fired plants to natural gas or renewable energy and therefore did more to phase out coal plants than any other Obama policy, The Washington Post pointed out.
"While the coal-fueled plants that were forced out of operation by this illegal rule can't be resurrected, it's an important lesson for the future," the National Mining Association said in a statement reported by Reuters.
The future is also what concerns experts who oppose the rule change out of worry it could be used to justify cutting controls on a variety of fossil fuel pollutants.
"That is the big unstated goal," said David Konisky, a professor of public and environmental affairs at Indiana University, to The New York Times. "This is less about mercury than about potentially constraining or handcuffing future efforts by the E.P.A. to regulate air pollution."
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Naomi Larsson
For centuries, the delicate silver dove has been a symbol of love and fidelity.
Biodiversity and Habitat Loss<p>Their near extinction is a symbol of the <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/global-biodiversity-outlook-targets-extinction-summit-new-york-pledge/a-54932895" target="_blank">biodiversity crisis</a> in the UK, largely driven by habitat destruction. Britain is now one of the countries with the most <a href="https://www.wwf.org.uk/future-of-UK-nature#:~:text=The%20UK%20is%20one%20of,than%20half%20are%20in%20decline" target="_blank">depleted nature</a> in the world according to the World Wildlife Fund. Half its plant and animal species are in decline and more than <a href="https://www.rspb.org.uk/about-the-rspb/about-us/media-centre/press-releases/let-nature-sing-wales/#:~:text=a%20natural%20tragedy.-,Over%2040%20million%20birds%20have%20vanished%20from%20UK%20skies%20in,unaware%20of%20the%20impending%20danger" target="_blank">40 million birds</a> have vanished in just half a century.</p><p>"[Turtle doves] are the canary in the [coal] mine because there are all these other species before it and after it," said Tree. "It's an umbrella for all the other species that are heading that way."</p><p>Turtle doves migrate south through Europe to sub-Saharan Africa between July and September, ending up in dry woodland and farmland areas of countries like Mali and Senegal for winter. </p><p>Droughts in West Africa and the Sahel region are believed to have contributed to the fall in turtle dove species recorded in northern Europe, with low rainfall reducing supplies of the seeds and insects the birds rely on for energy for the long journey home.</p>
Conservation and Farming<p><a href="https://www.operationturtledove.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Operation Turtle Dove,</a> a partnership project of charities including the Essex Wildlife trust, works with landowners and farmers to actively build turtle dove habitat.</p><p>Outten works with <a href="https://www.ebws.org.uk/birdsites/blue-house-farm-ewt-north-fambridge" target="_blank">Blue House Farm</a>, a 660-acre nature reserve in the UK county of Essex, where they have replicated weedy fallow plots. </p><p>"We work on it every year to make sure it's in the condition it needs to be with plants such as clovers and black medic," Outten said. "These plants are native to the landscape and produce the seed the birds feed on." </p><p>The birds eat a wide range of seeds from various plants that would have been abundant 50 or 100 years ago, added Guy Anderson, program manager for species recovery with The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB). </p><p>"But it's simply true that with the gradual process of <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/farming-without-pesticides-how-can-we-make-agriculture-greener/a-52216796" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">intensifying our agricultural production</a>, the availability of those seeds has dropped and dropped," said Anderson.</p><p>Part of the project includes supplementary feeding — providing sources of food in the form of seed or grain. Under the Countryside Stewardship Scheme in England, farmers can receive financial support to create a turtle dove habitat. </p><p>Though they haven't recorded an increase in doves across the sites in the four years of working on the project, Outten said they are seeing improvements in how landowners and farmers manage habitat for the birds. </p>
A Turtle Dove Haven<p>The 3,500-acre Knepp Estate in West Sussex is another project taking a different approach and one of the few places where turtle dove numbers are increasing.</p><p>Isabella Tree and her husband Charlie Burrell converted their intensively farmed land into a rewilding project almost 20 years ago. They have let the land return to nature.</p><p>Just one year after they'd finished <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/uks-most-talented-architects-are-not-human/a-35952128" target="_blank">rewilding</a> the southern part of their property, they heard turtle doves for the first time. It's now a breeding hotspot for the birds with an estimated 19 pairs. Knepp is also home to <a href="https://www.rewildingbritain.org.uk/rewilding/rewilding-projects/knepp-estate" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2% of the UK's population</a> of nightingales. </p><p>Tree is critical of supplementary feeding schemes that, in her view, are short term. She questions the chances of turtle doves getting to feed on scattered seeds before other mammals eat them first.</p>
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By Jessica Corbett
Green groups applauded Sen. Jeff Merkley on Wednesday for introducing a pioneering pair of bills that aim to "protect the long-term health and well-being of the American people and their economy from the catastrophic effects of climate chaos" by preventing banks and international financial institutions from financing fossil fuels.