Federal Appeals Court Upholds EPA’s Standards to Reduce Mercury and Toxic Air Pollutant Emissions
AG Coakley Leads Coalition of States in Defending EPA’S Rule to Reduce Mercury and Other Harmful Emissions from Power Plants that Endanger Children and Public Health
BOSTON – Supporting Attorney General Martha Coakley’s argument that toxic mercury emissions from power plants threaten public health and require national Clean Air Act controls, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit upheld the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) federal Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) rule against numerous challenges brought in federal court.
The MATS rule, issued in 2012, will reduce mercury emissions by 90 percent through the implementation of pollution-control technology already used in the industry, and cut emissions of other toxic metals, small particulates, and acid gases, all of which pose serious health risks to the public.
“Our office has fought for national mercury emission standards for over a decade, and we consider this ruling a victory for public health,” AG Coakley said. “We are pleased to have supported EPA in its significant step towards reducing harmful toxic air emissions from power plants that harm our residents and environmental resources.”
AG Coakley, along with California Attorney General Kamala Harris, led 14 other states, as well as the District of Columbia, the cities of Baltimore, Chicago, New York City, and Erie County, Pennsylvania, in defending EPA’s long-overdue standards to reduce mercury and other hazardous air pollutant emissions from coal and oil-fired electricity generating power plants, an important step to protect the public, in particular, children and developing fetuses, from harmful exposure to mercury. The other states included Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Vermont.
In the multi-part opinion issued Tuesday, the Court upheld the validity of EPA’s determination that regulation of hazardous air pollutant emissions from electric power plants under the Clean Air Act was “appropriate and necessary” and rejected numerous challenges to the standards themselves made by industry and environmental groups.
The Court deferred to EPA’s reasonable interpretation of the Act’s language and rejected industry attempts to impose additional preconditions on EPA’s ability to regulate. In particular, the Court affirmed EPA’s decision to evaluate environmental effects alongside the health effects, and its “commonsense approach” to considering the cumulative impacts of hazardous air pollutant emissions. A majority also held that EPA properly concluded it was not necessary to consider costs for purposes of determining whether regulation of power plants was “appropriate” where the Clean Air Act directed EPA to make that determination after considering the results of a Congressionally-mandated study of public health hazards posed by power plant emissions.
Various industry groups – White Stallion Energy Center, LLC, a proposed Texas coal plant, the National Mining Association, the National Black Chamber of Commerce, and the Institute for Liberty – along with a number of states, brought cases challenging the MATS rule. In March 2012, AG Coakley requested permission from the appeals court to intervene and defend the MATS rule.
Mercury is a potent neurotoxin that poses significant danger to humans, especially to developing fetuses and children, and to wildlife. When airborne mercury from power plants is deposited into the water, it can change into methylmercury, a highly toxic form of mercury that accumulates in the food chain, in particular in fish. Children exposed to methylmercury consumed by their mothers during pregnancy can suffer lifelong adverse developmental effects. Currently, all 50 states have fish consumption advisories in place related to mercury contamination. In the northeast, over 10,000 lakes, ponds, and streams, and over 46,000 river miles are impaired for fish consumption, primarily due to atmospheric deposition of mercury.
As a sector, electric power plants are the largest domestic source of mercury emissions and other hazardous air pollutants in the United States. The MATS rule allows existing sources three years to comply, and permits two additional years in certain cases. EPA estimates that health benefits of the MATS rule will range from $37 to $90 billion annually, meaning that for every $1 spent by electric power plants to reduce toxic air emissions, the public will receive $3 to $9 in health benefits. Massachusetts and many other states have made significant efforts over the years to reduce mercury emissions within their borders, but because airborne mercury can travel large distances, out-of-state electric power plants emissions have thwarted those efforts. Since Massachusetts’ mercury emission standards are already more stringent than those required by the MATS rule, it is unlikely there will be additional costs from the rule for coal plants within the Commonwealth.
This case was handled by Assistant Attorneys General Melissa Hoffer, Chief, who presented argument in the Court of Appeals, and Tracy Triplett, of Attorney General Coakley’s Environmental Protection Division.