Donald Trump's administration has successfully rolled back, or taken steps to weaken, nearly 100 environmental rules and regulations since the president entered the Oval Office in 2016.
These deregulatory efforts have not stopped during the COVID-19 pandemic, with experts telling Newsweek the administration is using the crisis as a cover to push through changes while the nation is distracted. As the country grappled with the worst of the outbreak between March and May, the administration made several significant announcements relating to air pollution regulations that critics say may be damaging to public health. Some studies suggest that poor air quality could play a role in the severity of coronavirus.
In 2012, under the Obama administration, the EPA enacted a rule known as the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) in order to establish regulatory limits on the emissions of mercury and other hazardous pollutants from coal- and oil-burning power plants.
In the U.S., power plants are the biggest emitters of mercury—a potent neurotoxin. Exposure to this substance has been linked to severe damage to the lungs, brain, heart and other organs. Fetuses growing inside pregnant women are especially vulnerable to mercury, when their developing brains and other key organs are most at risk.
Under Obama, the EPA found it was "appropriate and necessary" to regulate power plants to limit these pollutants, creating a legal argument that formed the foundation of the MATS regulation. However, in April, the EPA reversed this finding, deeming that it was no longer "appropriate and necessary."
The EPA argued the costs of compliance significantly outweighed the public health and financial benefits of the regulation. However, this analysis has been criticized by advocacy groups, such as the Environmental Protection Network (EPN)—a bipartisan organization whose membership is composed of former EPA officials—as well as the agency's own Science Advisory Board.
The reversal of the "appropriate and necessary" finding has also been met with opposition from many power utility companies, the majority of which are in compliance with the MATS rule having spent billions to install equipment that reduces mercury emissions. According to Janet McCabe, a professor at Indiana University (IU) McKinney School of Law and director of IU's Environmental Resilience Institute, MATS has been an "overwhelming success" with mercury emissions from U.S. coal plants falling 85 percent between 2006-2016.