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By Anne Hedges

The science is indisputable. Mercury and other toxins are harmful to people and wildlife. The good news is that technology exists to limit these emissions to safer levels. The bad news is that regulations have not been consistent in the past few decades, especially at differing levels of government.  

While Montana adopted a rule limiting mercury emissions from coal plants in 2010 – two years before the federal government required such limits – the Montana rule does not limit emissions of other hazardous air pollutants. The federal 2012 Mercury and Air Toxics Standard (MATS) rule limits emissions of mercury as well as additional toxins such as hydrogen chloride, selenium, arsenic, chromium, cobalt, nickel, hydrogen cyanide, beryllium, and cadmium. It’s hard to imagine anyone arguing that it is not “appropriate and necessary” to limit emissions of these harmful substances, yet the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under former President Trump reversed the MATS rule in 2020. 

Prior to EPA’s 2012 adoption of MATS, coal-fired power plants were the largest industrial source of mercury and air toxins in the nation. Under the Trump Administration, EPA said it was no longer “necessary and appropriate” to limit mercury and other toxic emissions from coal plants and that the cost to clean up the air was too high for the polluting industries to have to pay. In making this decision, EPA eliminated the legal underpinnings of the MATS rule for coal-fired power plants, despite the fact that power plants across the U.S. had already installed the needed pollution control technology and were meeting the MATS emissions limits.

In 2020, Earthjustice challenged that Trump era decision on behalf of MEIC and other organizations. Earthjustice also represented MEIC and other organizations in challenging a different provision in the Trump era rule that allowed coal-fired power plants to disregard toxic air pollution limits upon startup regardless of emissions or how frequently a plant started and restarted operations.

On his first day in office, President Biden issued an executive order directing EPA to revise the rules for toxic air pollution from large coal- and oil-fired power plants. In January 2022, EPA finally released draft rules to reinstate the standard that it is “necessary and appropriate” to limit mercury and air toxics from power plants. EPA is asking for public input on ways to strengthen the MATS rule, and will accept public comments until April 11. You can comment on these proposed rules at www.meic.org/action-center

It is important to note that re-establishing the “appropriate and necessary” standard to limit toxic pollutants is not enough to protect public health and the environment. Both the Montana rule and EPA’s MATS rule need to be improved. Power plants should limit their air pollution all day, every day, regardless of whether they are just starting up or are shutting down operations. The plant owners should not be allowed to impose the costs of their pollution on society in the form of increased cancer, cardiovascular disease, heart attacks, and neurological impairment. 

The Biden EPA is on the right path, but the public may need to push it across the finish line as it is certain to run into opposition from the coal industry. 


This article was published in the March 2022 issue of Down To Earth. 

Read the full issue here.


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