What do you think? Leave a respectful comment.

How Trump’s EPA is changing the public health benefits around mercury

The Trump administration is partially rolling back an Obama-era rule on mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants, saying the health benefits of restricting mercury, which causes birth defects, brain damage and learning disabilities, are outweighed by the regulation's cost. The Washington Post’s Juliet Eilperin joins William Brangham to discuss the EPA's calculation and industry reaction.

Read the Full Transcript

  • William Brangham:

    The Trump administration is moving to partially roll back yet another Obama era environmental rule, this time on the mercury emissions that come out of the stacks of coal-fired power plants.

    The Environmental Protection Agency announced the proposal today, saying that the cost of these regulations outweighs the health benefits. Mercury can cause birth defects, brain damage and learning disabilities in children.

    Under President Obama, the EPA had said power plants must limit mercury and other pollutants, and it justified those rules by saying the changes would prevent thousands of deaths and save tens of billions of dollars. But President Trump's EPA doesn't agree with those calculations at all, and it said utilities won't have to comply with those rules in the future.

    Juliet Eilperin of The Washington Post has been covering the EPA throughout the Trump administration is back on the "NewsHour" again, which always makes me happy.

    Nice to see you.

  • Juliet Eilperin:

    Great to see too.

  • William Brangham:

    So, let's go back in time.

    In 2011, the Obama administration and his EPA puts out these rules. What was it — this was considered one of Obama's signature environmental moves. What did those rules do back then?

  • Juliet Eilperin:

    Those rules mandated that power companies reduce the mercury that came — come out of the smokestacks of power plants by 90 percent over the course of five years.

    And so that's what was set in motion. There were a series of lawsuits about this, questioning, again, how they came to this conclusion. But that's really what was — what was triggered by the Obama administration and accounts for why we have seen such a decline in mercury from power pants across the country.

  • William Brangham:

    So, those rules, at least for their — if they were intended to reduce mercury, they worked.

  • Juliet Eilperin:

    They succeeded. And by 2016, the industry was fully in compliance with what Obama had set out to do in 2011.

  • William Brangham:

    Remind us again why we care about mercury getting into the year.

  • Juliet Eilperin:

    It's a powerful neurotoxin. There are also other hazardous air pollutants that are emitted along with mercury.

    And so, again, as you mentioned, what happens is, over time, it can accumulate, for example, in fish, which we eat, and ultimately poses the greatest risks to unborn children and infants as their brains are developing. And so it's something that obviously the medical community is very concerned about.

  • William Brangham:

    You mentioned at the time that there were lawsuits. Those were from the industry saying, we don't want to comply?

  • Juliet Eilperin:

    Yes.

    Both the industry and a number of states that were allied with industry challenged this. One of the main issues that they raised was the idea that, when the Obama EPA originally calculated it, they said it would cost roughly $9.6 billion a year for the industry to install these pollution controls, and it would really only save — the limits on mercury would only translate to $6 million a year in health benefits.

  • William Brangham:

    Nine billion vs. six million?

  • Juliet Eilperin:

    Six million.

    However, they said, well, if you take into account that, by cleaning up these power plants, they will also reduce soot and nitrogen oxide, pollutants that are linked to heart and lung disease, that really what we're talking about are public health benefits in the range of $37 billion to $90 billion a year. And so it's — the benefits far outweigh the costs.

  • William Brangham:

    I see.

    So that was the Obama administration's justification on the cost-benefit analysis. The Trump EPA comes in and says, that was the wrong calculation, right? Am I understanding that that's their — that's their concern?

  • Juliet Eilperin:

    Absolutely. That's what they have said.

    For example, the acting administrator for the EPA, Andrew Wheeler, has referred to this as fuzzy math.

    He said that, look, we're just — we're just trying to change the way we count things. The fact that you're cleaning up these other pollutants, these fine particles that lead to heart and lung disease, those are what you would call co-benefits, they are incidental, and they're not directly tied to mercury. And so we should exclude those altogether.

    And it very much changes the math, as you can see.

  • William Brangham:

    They're not saying that those co-benefits aren't actually benefits, though, right?

  • Juliet Eilperin:

    Right. They're not. They're saying, we're not saying that those don't exist. And we're not saying that we might try to reduce those kinds of fine particles and other pollutions in other rules.

    But for the purposes of this rule, they're saying, we're not going to count them in the equation.

  • William Brangham:

    So is industry happy about this move?

  • Juliet Eilperin:

    That's a very interesting question.

    What industry is very clear on is, they want to keep the Obama era rule in place, because they have already spent the money to clean up their plants. And they would consider it a competitive disadvantage if suddenly things were reversed and they take those scrubbers off.

    So the fascinating thing is — and we reached out, for example, to the biggest trade association. And what they said is, essentially, they understand that EPA can review these rules, but the most important thing is the rules stay in place.

    Really, this is much more about changing the calculus going forward from the perspective of Trump officials.

  • William Brangham:

    So interesting.

    As we have talked with you many times on the show, this is obviously part of the much larger rollback of environmental era — Obama era environmental rules.

    When you look back on the year, the two years of the Trump EPA, what else do you point to as other signature rollbacks?

  • Juliet Eilperin:

    Well, there are a number of them.

    But I would say, in terms of some of the most high-profile EPA reversals that we have had since Trump has taken office, at the top of the list would be the repeal of the Clean Power Plan.

    This was, you know, essentially this…

  • William Brangham:

    That was the omnibus sort of Obama plan.

  • Juliet Eilperin:

    The signature Obama effort to deal with climate change by curbing the greenhouse gases that come out of power plants.

    And so at this point, the EPA has published its — proposed its own version of this, which is far less stringent. Then you also have the fact that they have frozen fuel-efficiency standards for cars and light trucks, again, a — one arguably equally significant climate rule that came out of the Obama administration.

    And then, again, just in the past several weeks, we have seen a rollback of the waters of the U.S. rule. This is an extremely wonky rule, but very significant, that essentially defines what waters are protected in the United States from pollution, from being drained. And that's another really sweeping regulatory rollback we have seen out of this EPA.

  • William Brangham:

    Lastly, we know that Scott Pruitt, the former EPA chief, has left, and now Andrew Wheeler is the acting chief. Do we expect any shift in policy with that shift at the top?

  • Juliet Eilperin:

    So, what I would say is that you will see a few of the most controversial initiatives that Scott Pruitt pushed being sidelined under this new EPA administrator, things like doing a public debate over whether climate change was caused by human activity, or one particularly controversial proposal which had to do with easing pollution controls on diesel freight trucks.

    So, a few real outlier things, but, for the most part, what we're seeing from Andrew Wheeler and should expect in the coming couple of years is that he would pursue many of these same deregulatory initiatives that have been the hallmark of the Trump era.

  • William Brangham:

    Juliet Eilperin, as always, thank you so much.

  • Juliet Eilperin:

    Thank you, William.

Listen to this Segment

The Latest