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Supreme Court Ruling Affects EPA Mercury and Air Toxics Standards

PHOTO: The U.S. Supreme Court sent the EPA's first-ever national limits on mercury and other toxic air pollution from power plants back to a lower court for review. The Court found the agency should have considered costs to industry earlier in the rule-making process. Photo courtesy of U.S. Geological Survey.
PHOTO: The U.S. Supreme Court sent the EPA's first-ever national limits on mercury and other toxic air pollution from power plants back to a lower court for review. The Court found the agency should have considered costs to industry earlier in the rule-making process. Photo courtesy of U.S. Geological Survey.
June 30, 2015

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) failed to properly consider costs to the energy industry and utilities early in the rule-making process when trying to limit toxic heavy metal pollution from power plants.

The EPA's new rules regulating oil- and coal-fired power plants are still in effect, and the case will be reviewed by a lower court.

Attorney Jim Pew with Earthjustice says the new rules are particularly important for reining in emissions from the oldest plants still in operation.

"This rule does a couple of things," he says. "It sets first-time limits on some of the 'worst of the worst' pollutants. And it sets an industry-wide limit on some of the pollutants that haven't been regulated well enough until now."

Pew adds power plants are responsible for 50 percent of all U.S. emissions of mercury, a potent neurotoxin. He says more than four million women of childbearing age in the nation are exposed to mercury levels considered harmful for fetal brain development.

The Supreme Court's decision did not dispute EPA conclusions that power plants are the largest industrial polluters, nor that reductions in emissions are feasible. Some power companies have complained that compliance with the new rules will cost them close to $10 billion annually.

The EPA says limiting toxic emissions could save between $37- and $90-billion per year in health benefits. Pew says the new rules are about more than just money.

"It's a big number, but the number looks a lot smaller when you compare it to what the cost is of not controlling this pollution," he says. "Nobody is really disputing that this rule is going to save between 4,000 and 11,000 lives every year."

Pew notes the Supreme Court's decision does not change the EPA's authority to protect the public from toxic pollution. He says it just gives the agency another hoop to jump through.

Troy Wilde, Public News Service - NM