Trump’s EPA is reconsidering a rule that limits mercury from power plants

The EPA has asked a court to delay oral arguments — where it was supposed to defend the rule.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Charlie Riedel
CREDIT: AP Photo/Charlie Riedel

The Trump administration on Tuesday asked a court to delay arguments over a rule that prevents coal-fired power plants from releasing heavy metals into the environment.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s Mercury and Air Toxics Standard (MATS) rule has been in place for two years, but, “in light of the recent change in administration” the agency now says it wants time to “fully review” the findings. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit was expected to hear oral arguments for the case on May 18.

The rule was the culmination of more than two decades of effort to limit the amount of mercury from coal-fired power plants. In 2015, the Supreme Court, in a 5–4 decision led by Justice Antonin Scalia, found that the EPA had not adequately considered the cost of the regulation. That ruling sent the standard down to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. The standard — which has been in place in the meantime — could be upheld, if the EPA can successfully argue that repealing the rule would cause more harm than good or can explain why and when it adequately considered costs.

According to EPA analysis, for every dollar spent to comply with the regulation, the public receives up to $9 in health benefits. The standards are expected to prevent to 11,000 premature deaths, 4,700 heart attacks, and 130,000 asthma attacks every year, the agency says.


The Supreme Court subsequently turned down a petition by the states and two electricity companies to stay the rule while it was considered. The EPA has been fine-tuning the rule since the Supreme Court’s original ruling on costs.

Of course, under the leadership of Scott Pruitt, former attorney general for the state of Oklahoma, the EPA might not even make those arguments. Oklahoma, represented by Pruitt, was one of the states that has sued over the MATS rule.

“EPA intends to closely review the Supplemental Finding, and the prior positions taken by the Agency… may not necessarily reflect its ultimate conclusions after that review is complete,” the agency said in its filing.

Methylmercury, the compound that comes from power plants, is a powerful neurotoxin that can affect coordination, impair speech and hearing, cause muscle weakness, and degrade vision. Exposure to methylmercury in utero and for infants and small children can have significant long term health impacts, including cognitive and fine motor impairments.


“Coal-fired power plants are the nation’s worst polluters by far,” Earthjustice attorney James Pew said in a statement following the filing’s announcement. “They spew enormous amounts of mercury, arsenic, and lead into our air, and that pollution harms everyone and particularly children, who are the most vulnerable among us.”

President Trump ran on a platform of rolling back environmental regulations and has issued a directive to agencies to identify any regulations that could be scrapped. The EPA has already filed in court to delay Obama-era regulations on methane, ozone, and carbon emissions.

Environmental groups have said that if the administration doesn’t uphold environmental protections, they are prepared to sue.