By Jordin Metz
Ph.D. candidate, Department of Chemistry, Rice University
Additional EPA policy changes have occurred since a previous blog post was written on this topic. The last post highlighted previous regulatory rollbacks on automobile emission standards and pollution enforcement. This week, the EPA announced additional regulatory changes, this time for mercury emission rules. Mercury is a heavy metal that can cause brain damage and is especially detrimental to children. The EPA’s 2012 regulation required power plants to invest in equipment that reduced mercury emissions; this equipment also reduced emissions from a range of other harmful pollutants, including fine particulate matter, PM2.5. The current rule change does not directly lower mercury emission standards but rather alters the way the cost-benefit analysis for mercury-control measures is calculated. In the original law, the co-benefits of these pollution controls, such as reduced asthma, heart disease, and other chronic health problems, were calculated as part of the cost-benefit ratio. These calculations found that the health benefits from air quality improvements saved between $37 to $90 billion a year and prevented up to 11,000 premature deaths annually. However, the 2020 change to this regulation will not consider co-benefits as part of the calculation, and instead will only evaluate direct payback for hazardous air pollutant emission controls compared to the cost of the equipment. This destroys a key part of the rule and could encourage power plants to not install these controls in the future or to shut off existing systems to save money. This will lead to an increase in health problems and respiratory illnesses for Americans, particularly for vulnerable communities situated near power plants.
Additionally, the EPA announced that it will not lower the pollution cap on fine particulate matter, PM2.5, and instead will maintain the current standard. This is particularly notable when the EPA’s own report states that current levels of PM2.5 pollution are associated with up to 45,000 deaths each year and that tightening the regulation from the current 12 µg/m3 to 9 µg/m3 could save up to 12,150 lives annually. With the Covid-19 virus spreading across America and a recent Harvard study explicitly linking long-term exposure to PM2.5 to a significant increase in death from Covid-19, it is irresponsible of the EPA to explicitly maintain these standards against overwhelming evidence of harm.
These new EPA rulings will not only be detrimental to the environment but also to the health of the American people. Both mercury and PM2.5 have long-lasting adverse effects on health, leading to increased risks of disease, suffering, and strain on the country’s health care system for years to come.
This blog post is part of the Baker Institute Science and Technology Policy Program’s Developing Civic Scientist Leaders project.