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Down But Not Out: EPA's Mercury and Air Toxics Standards

GRAPHIC: The tan area of this map of Washington indicates a statewide mercury advisory for fish consumption for children and women of childbearing age. Mercury is one of the pollutants the EPA is trying to regulate, but the U.S. Supreme Court says the agency must consider the impact of costs to industry. Map courtesy Washington State Dept. of Health.
GRAPHIC: The tan area of this map of Washington indicates a statewide mercury advisory for fish consumption for children and women of childbearing age. Mercury is one of the pollutants the EPA is trying to regulate, but the U.S. Supreme Court says the agency must consider the impact of costs to industry. Map courtesy Washington State Dept. of Health.
June 30, 2015

SEATTLE – 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.

Attorney Jim Pew, who worked on the case at the law firm Earthjustice, says the case was about the complex rule-making process – but the underlying issue is simple.

"Do we want to control the toxic pollution from the very 'worst of the worst' polluters in this country?" he asks. "We know it is killing thousands of people every year, and contaminating lakes and rivers in every single state in the country."

The Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) rule covers airborne pollutants that affect people with breathing problems, and some water pollution. Washington has statewide fish consumption warnings in effect for high mercury content, and the EPA says power plants are the major source 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 per 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. Opponents of the MATS rule have said it will result in lost jobs and less power-generating capacity if energy companies decide to close more plants, rather than comply with the new standards.

Chris Thomas, Public News Service - WA