The Environmental Protection Agency recently announced a change that removes the legal foundation for regulations on mercury and other toxins emitted from coal- and oil-fired power plants. The change, some experts worry, might set a precedent for rolling back pollution standards that have improved air quality in the Great Lakes area.
Announced April 16, the change recalculates the cost-benefit analysis for the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, formed under the Obama administration in 2012. Under the new analysis, the EPA says the standards — which have reduced mercury emissions by 87% nationwide since 2011 — are no longer "appropriate or necessary."
The change doesn’t revoke the mercury regulation, but experts say it undermines the legal foundation for it. It's a move they worry could put the regulation at risk, should it be challenged.
"You're not touching the standard itself," said Janet McCabe, a former official focusing on air quality at the EPA and IDEM, "but if you rescind the 'appropriate and necessary' finding, you're essentially undermining the legal underpinning of the rule itself."
Although weakened, the mercury regulation remains in place, so there likely won't be any short-term impacts in emissions unless the rule itself is rolled back, McCabe said.
David Konisky, a professor in Indiana University's Paul H. O'Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs, said this move is not typical environmental rollback by the administration of President Donald Trump. This change, he said, is essentially removing the underlying support for a regulation and could set the tone for how the agency completes cost-benefit analyses in the future.
"They are, in a way, cooking the books away from a finding that the regulation is worthwhile," Konisky said. "It's basically trying to handcuff the agency from future rules that would protect public health and the environment."