The 2012 Mercury and Air Toxics Standards set limits on the amount of harmful pollution that the nation’s coal plants are allowed to spew into the air. They are a model of effective regulation, as they are fully implemented, broadly supported, and actively preventing mercury and other air toxics from getting into the brains and bodies of our babies.
But they are under attack.
Trump’s EPA has been actively trying to weaken this rule for more than a year – and Moms Clean Air Force has been fighting this cynical effort every step of the way. Last week, National Field Director Heather McTeer Toney testified at a Congressional hearing about the benefits of the mercury standards, and what’s at stake if the standards are weakened by the EPA’s proposed changes. As Heather testified, undermining this rule opens the door for brain damaging pollution to increase in the future. The EPA’s mission is to protect human and environmental health. It is responsible for creating standards and laws promoting the health of individuals and the environment. This mercury proposal is precisely the opposite of what this government agency should be doing to protect our most precious resource, our children.
This isn’t the first time Heather has testified before Congress about this issue. But this time, the hearing was one in a series called by the House Oversight Committee to highlight the many threats from the Trump Administration to children’s health and wellbeing. Moms Clean Air Force was honored to participate in the series, helping highlight Trump’s attacks on children, whether in the realm of poverty, housing, hunger, or health. The regulatory rollbacks of the Trump administration are not one-off’s: They represent a wholesale attack on children.
Pregnant women are routinely advised to avoid eating certain fish high in mercury. What they may not be told is where most of that mercury comes from: the smokestacks of coal plants. Mercury can cause learning and behavioral problems in babies, stripping IQ points from our children. These harms can occur even in the absence of other obvious symptoms. There is no safe level of mercury for children. It doesn’t have to be this way; utilities know how to prevent mercury pollution. In fact, the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards have contributed to a dramatic decline in mercury emissions from coal plants, and a corresponding decline in the mercury found in the bodies of Atlantic fish. The rule is working to drive down pollution. The idea that our government would make it easier for coal companies to harm the brains and bodies of babies, when we already have an effective and widely-supported solution to the problem, simply makes no sense.
A broad and diverse coalition of stakeholders opposes Trump’s mercury proposal. Faith leaders, medical experts, African American leaders, environmental groups, fishers – even the regulated industry itself has opposed the Trump proposal to weaken the standards. And there has been strong bipartisan opposition in both the House and Senate to moving forward with the Trump proposal. In this polarized political climate, it’s rare to find issues with such strong bipartisan opposition. Which raises the question: Who actually wants the Trump proposal weakening the mercury standards to advance?
This is where the trail gets murky. Wheeler’s proposal, based on flawed analysis, would undermine the legal foundation of the mercury standards. It would prevent the agency from including the benefits of particulate pollution reductions in the calculation of the benefits of mercury reductions, despite the fact that using this “co-benefits” model is standard practice. (Meanwhile, the EPA’s own Science Advisory Board has expressed concerns with the analysis underlying EPA’s proposal.) If finalized, EPA’s proposal could undermine the cost-benefit analysis of several important clean air protections, and set the stage for a massive deregulatory free-for-all. The beneficiaries? Corporate polluters. Children would pay the price, with increasing damage to their developing brains and bodies.
Heather’s powerful testimony highlighted the fact that mercury pollution in the US has actually been on a steep decline, in large part due to the rule the Trump administration is now trying to undermine. This is great news for babies, children, pregnant women, and subsistence fishers like some Native Americans. But for those who are exposed, mercury from fish targets the developing brain, leading to cognitive and behavioral problems, and reducing IQ. It causes problems with thinking, speech, and motor skills. As Heather said before Congress, “We will continue to call out this action for what it is: A direct threat to our children’s health — and that is simply not acceptable.”