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Court Asks EPA to Rethink Mercury and Air Toxics Standards

The EPA proposed rules to limit mercury and other dangerous pollutants from power plants that affect air and water quality, but the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday the agency must weigh the costs of compliance in its rule-making. Credit: Environmental Protection Agency.
The EPA proposed rules to limit mercury and other dangerous pollutants from power plants that affect air and water quality, but the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday the agency must weigh the costs of compliance in its rule-making. Credit: Environmental Protection Agency.
June 30, 2015

PORTLAND, Ore. – The EPA was handed a setback by the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday.

The justices voted five to four that before the agency put a new rule into effect to control toxic pollution from power plants, it should have considered the cost to industry to comply with it.

The decision doesn't reverse the rule, but it could mean a delay in some plants reducing their emissions of mercury and other toxins.

Jim Pew with the lawfirm Earthjustice says delays have been norm since 2000 in implementing the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS).

"Everyone has known for decades that power plants are the worst toxic-emitters," he says. "The industry has been fighting tooth-and-nail against controlling its pollution, very successfully, for years. Even if they succeed in nothing but delaying these controls, they save a lot of money."

The MATS rule covers airborne pollutants that affect people with breathing problems, and some water pollution. Many states, including Oregon, have fish consumption warnings in effect for high mercury content – and the EPA says power plants are the primary sources of mercury.

The EPA estimates between 4,000 and 11,000 premature deaths would be prevented nationwide with the MATS rule in effect, but the energy industry told the court compliance would cost almost $10 billion a year.

Carrie Nyssen, vice president for advocacy and air quality for the American Lung Association of the Mountain Pacific, says it's a frequent, and unfortunate, comparison.

"In today's political environment, that is a constant battle that we have," she says. "Human health versus the cost of business. While it's a setback, we've had cleanup that has begun in 40 states."

The case goes back to a lower court to determine how the EPA should factor in costs to the energy industry.

In the Pacific Northwest, plans to close two coal-fired power plants are already on track. The conservative American Action Forum says nationally, 24 plants could close rather than install the pollution controls, which it says will cost jobs and power-generating capacity.

Chris Thomas, Public News Service - OR