We should protect pregnant women and young children from toxic mercury pollution that spews out of dirty coal plants. This shouldn’t be a controversial statement, but after Donald Trump put two former coal lobbyists in charge of the EPA, with client lists that stretch from Atlanta to California, it’s become one.
Mercury pollution is serious business. It’s a powerful neurotoxin that can damage the brain and nervous system in young children, and it’s a big concern for pregnant women who want to protect their babies from being exposed to mercury in the womb. It’s one of the reasons I signed on to become director of Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign around the time I gave birth to my daughter. I was flabbergasted at the threats mercury pollution posed to my then infant daughter in my home state of West Virginia, and to kids around the nation, so I decided to do something about it.
Congress required EPA to set mercury standards for coal plants back the 1990s, but the industry resisted any limits for decades. After years of lawsuits, awareness campaigns, and meetings with public officials, we finally got EPA to finalize the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) in 2012. Since then, nearly all U.S. coal plants have complied with the standards and we’ve seen massive drops in their dangerous mercury emissions as a result (of course, many other pollution problems from coal still remain).
However, despite this success, and the pleas of public health officials, elected officials, and even the owners of the remaining coal plants, former coal lobbyist and acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler and his air policy chief, Bill Wehrum, both of whom are long-term employees of industrial polluters, have decided to use their positions to not only attack the MATS, but the entire Clean Air Act itself.
How did we get here? Well, since the MATS were finalized, there have been a handful of wealthy coal industry executives who supported Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential bid who have railed against the standards because it affected their bottom lines. They spent millions of dollars on litigation to get the MATS thrown out, but the Obama administration demonstrated time and again that the standards were lawful, and ensured that they remained in effect.
But when Trump came into office and appointed Wheeler and Wehrum to head up the EPA, they decided to aid their former clients by changing how EPA calculates the benefits of the MATS in order to lessen the significance of public health in its rulemaking. The scheme’s endgame is to apply the new benefits formula to the entire Clean Air Act. This could leave the MATS and dozens of other clean air protections vulnerable to more court challenges from polluters’ attorneys, arguing that such protections’ full benefits should be ignored by EPA. If Wheeler and Wehrum are successful, they could endanger thousands of communities that are currently protected by rules developed under the Clean Air Act.
Their scheme has been met with fierce resistance from public health groups, environmentalists and responsible industrial executives who believe it will put public health and significant pollution control investments in jeopardy. Making matters even worse, coal plants will continue retiring either way. After a decade of effective advocacy work, decreasing costs of clean energy, and drastic shifts in consumer demand, more than half of the United States’ coal plants have retired, or announced for retirement since 2010. Utilities are not building more coal plants because they can get a cheaper price with renewable energy and attract new electricity customers by offering it to large businesses, which is becoming a major ask from Fortune 500 companies looking to act on the climate crisis.
So what America will get, if Wheeler and Wehrum are successful, is increased pollution in our air and waterways from coal plants, with none of the long-term economic gains claimed in the Trump administration’s talking points. This means more asthma attacks, more heart attacks, more kids with developmental delays, and more premature deaths. All this just so that Wheeler and Wehrum’s former clients can squeeze marginally more profits out of coal plants that are going to eventually retire anyway.
There was a time when people wouldn’t look twice at the statement that we should act to protect pregnant women and young children from toxic pollution that spews out of dirty coal plants, but now it will become a rallying cry for thousands of communities across America demanding accountability for the coal industry. This should not be controversial, but with an administration so focused on polluter profits over public health, clearly it’s a fight worth having. We must not move backward.