U.S. EPA moves to advance mercury and air toxics rule

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WASHINGTON, Jan 31 (Reuters) - The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Monday revived an Obama administration-era legal finding that regulating hazardous air toxics and mercury from power plants is necessary, a key step before it can strengthen those air regulations.

The move to deem the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) "appropriate and necessary" would pave the way for the EPA to update the power plant regulation. Power plants are the largest source of those toxic pollutants.

Former President Donald Trump's EPA had reversed that legal finding in 2020, citing flaws in the Obama EPA's cost-benefit analysis of the rule. That reversal effectively weakened the MATS rule because it opened the door to lawsuits by companies opposed to it.

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“EPA is committed to aggressively reducing pollution from the power sector so that all people, regardless of zip code or amount of money in their pocket, can breathe clean air and live healthy and productive lives,” said EPA Administrator Michael Regan.

The new proposal would leave the current MATS unchanged but would begin the process to gather public health information and public input it needs to strengthen the regulation.

The Obama EPA had concluded in 2012 that controlling mercury, acid gases, and other harmful pollutants could reduce heart attacks and cancer risks and avoid neurodevelopmental delays in children justified the costs of compliance.

The calculations used at the time, however, accounted for how pollution-control equipment at coal plants would reduce emissions of particulate matter and other harmful substances that come out of smokestacks, in addition to mercury.

Trump’s EPA said it believed it was inappropriate to have included the benefits of reducing emissions other than mercury.

"The previous administration ignored science as it attempted to turn back the clock on these protections," said Democratic Senator Tom Carper.

The MATS rule has helped drive sharp reductions in air pollutants, according to the EPA. The agency estimates that by 2017, mercury emissions from power plants were reduced by 86%; acid gas emissions were reduced by 96%, and non-mercury metal emissions were reduced by 81% percent compared with pre-MATS levels in 2010.

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Reporting by Valerie Volcovici Editing by Marguerita Choy

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