Thursday, January 31, 2019

John Sheehan: Oppose Changes to Federal Mercury Rule

adirondack council new logoLast month, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler proposed an amendment to the federal Mercury and Air Toxics Standards and the Clean Air Act “risk and review” process that should worry everyone who cares about the Adirondacks and public health.

On the surface, the change looks like a routine adjustment of technical language about the way EPA calculates “side benefits” from proposed air pollution rules. That’s how EPA is describing it. As a result, few people have paid attention to the proposal. But if approved, it would have far-reaching effects that strike at the heart of some of the most important public health and environmental protections.

Worse, it could prevent new regulations and improvements to current rules, at a time when local research tells us that EPA must do more to protect the Adirondacks from acid rain, mercury and climate change.

Wheeler is a former coal industry lobbyist and former staff member for Sen. James Inhofe, R-OK, who infamously declared he believed global climate change was “a hoax.” It appears that Wheeler’s real aim is to use the rule change as a precedent. That would clear the way for him to weaken EPA’s method for assessing environmental impacts of all proposed pollution rules. That would allow him to systematically undermine EPA’s entire regulatory framework, without seeking legislation from Congress.

Wheeler’s proposal would change one crucial thing: EPA could no longer count the “side-benefits” of new pollution rules in assessing whether they are reasonable. This is vital, since federal appeals courts are always asked to judge whether a new pollution rule is reasonable, or whether it would be too great a burden on a regulated industry. Every EPA-proposed air pollution rule has faced lawsuits from polluters who seek to weaken or overturn them. Wheeler’s actions would make it easier for polluters to win those lawsuits.

Here’s how his proposed technical change would harm people in the real world:

Cutting smokestack emissions of mercury requires companies to burn cleaner fuels (gas or oil instead of coal) or stop burning fuels entirely (solar, wind, hydro, etc.). Changes made to power plants that result in fewer mercury emissions routinely result in fewer sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides being emitted too. Because sulfur and nitrogen are not the primary targets of the rule, those reductions are not counted as direct benefits. They instead are counted as side-benefits. In this case, the side-benefits of tougher mercury rules are reductions in smog, soot, microscopic carbon particles and acid rain.

The EPA estimates that the direct benefits of the recently enacted mercury rule to be only $4 million to $6 million annually. This seems dubiously low. Mercury can cause organ, nerve and brain damage and is a known cause of birth defects. Mercury emissions consist of heavy particles that fall to earth very close to the smokestack. The rest become aerosols that can circle the globe before they hit land or water. The costs of mercury aerosol pollution is hard to assess, so EPA really doesn’t bother to. So we are left with an unrealistically low estimate of the direct cost of mercury damage.

Meanwhile, the side-benefits of preventing smog and acid rain are much, much greater – in the tens of billions. Avoiding smog and fine particles of soot means enormous reductions in the costs associated with lung disease, health care, lost production/missed work and premature deaths. Acid rain damage only adds to those costs. Avoidance of these expenses more than justifies the cost of implementing the mercury rules (EPA says: $7 billion to $9.5 billion).

Currently, EPA can count the health benefits of both reduced mercury (birth defects, brain damage) and reduced sulfur/nitrogen when determining the public health and environmental impacts. The proposal by EPA would change that method, allowing EPA to count only the direct benefits from cutting mercury.

This would make the mercury rule appear to be very expensive, and not worth the investment by industry. It seems very unlikely that a federal court would approve mercury rules that only promise a total of $6 million in benefits, while costing $9 billion to implement.

Next up on Wheeler’s agenda is replacing the Obama administration’s carbon rule, the Clean Power Plan (CPP), with the weaker Affordable Clean Energy Rule. The CPP would have reduced carbon pollution nationwide by 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. In addition, it would have produced a side-benefit of an additional cut in sulfur and nitrogen pollution of about 10 to 12 percent each by 2030. The proposed replacement doesn’t mandate any carbon cuts and therefor will have no significant side-benefits.

The Adirondack Council calls on Acting Administrator Wheeler to withdraw this proposal to alter the mercury rule and protect the Adirondacks and the people of the North Country from acid rain, smog, soot and mercury.

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Before John Sheehan joined the Adirondack Council's staff in 1990, he was the managing editor of the Malone Evening Telegram, and previously worked as a journalist for the Troy Record, (Schenectady) Daily Gazette, Watertown Daily Times and Newsday. For the past 20 years, John has been the voice of the Adirondack Council on radio and television, and on the pages of local, regional and national media.

23 Responses

  1. Balian the Cat says:

    I lately feel like a deer in the headlights – astonished to the point of near speechless paralysis at the degree to which unashamed greed and blithering ignorance are turning this nation back in time. Simply stated, there are two legitimate ways to logical deny climate change (I can no longer argue with the folks who simply “don’t believe” decades of ice core and atmospheric data): One is either gaining wealth at the expense of the future of life on earth or one doesn’t understand the concept and allows others to dictate their opinion. The jury is in on the health affects of mercury and other hazardous pollution’s – either you get it and don’t care or you don’t get it and don’t care.

    • Boreas says:

      Anyone with a grade-school education should be able to understand the greenhouse effect. Any climate-change denial at this point is simply a political statement, as is human influence on cause and remediation. As long as the energy industry feeds the US political machine, this situation will not change. Hopefully the world will ignore our politics and try to reduce greenhouse gases on their own.

  2. CommunityGuy says:

    Trump and Co. want to allow more MERCURY in our downwind air! This is a vicious poison that can not be remediated. It’s greatest damage is to fetuses, which is lifelong and catastrophic. The next worst harmed group is young children. It works its way up the food chain to harm everyone and everything alive. ONLY radioactivity is worse than Mercury.

    Is there any way to better demonstrate a complete disregard for life and health in pursuit of wealth? We in the North Country will rise up over this!

    Thank you for this well constructed essay.

  3. James Marco says:

    Well said!

  4. Blaikie Worth says:

    Excellent article by John Sheehan, thank you.
    Blaikie Worth

  5. adkDreamer says:

    C02 is not significant cause of temperature increases. Never has been. The IPCC is a political organization and has been debunked. Global Warming due to AGW (anthropomorphic global warming) is an anecdotal agenda designed to control the narrative and cause undue harm, world-wide. Do your own research and stop watching/reading main stream media. I contacted the IPCC personally and they refuse to provide the source of their so-called climate data.

    • CommunityGuy says:

      Are you as ignorant about Mercury as CO2? Mercury is truly hard to justify.

      • adkDreamer says:

        Ad homenim attacks serve no purpose in an objective argument.

        I’ve read the so called research pumped out in the climate assessment reports of the IPCC and it is far from science regarding CO2. The best correlation of climate influence are the Sunspot cycles. The author of this article clearly points out that: “The costs of mercury aerosol pollution is hard to assess”. Well, unfortunately that is not quantifiable objective proof of anything, good or bad.

        • Boreas says:

          The “costs” are hard to assess, not the FACT that there is mercury in our waters, sediments, fish, and aquatic birds.

    • John Warren says:

      Yes, our warming climate is a worldwide conspiracy involving the vast majority of the scientific community, US military planners, the media, and municipal leaders worldwide /s.

      I’ll bet adkDreamer is exhausting to hang out with in real life.

      • Boreas says:

        Well, he/she certainly is sensitive about ad hominem attacks John.

        • adkDreamer says:

          Probably be best to relabel this forum: “The John Warren & Commentor Boreas Personal Feelings About Stuff”. In every case I have read in this forum, any challenges to your collective beliefs are met with ad hominem attacks, invariably used to avoid a constructive argument. Simply put, when you use these useless tactics it illustrates you have exhausted any purposeful defense.

          • Todd Eastman says:

            Alternative science seems to be the basis of your unvavering support for polluting industries.

            At the most basic level, a degree of acknowledgement of utilizing the”precautionary principle” for guiding policies that impact human and environmental health seems lost on the minions of the fossil fuel industry?

            • adkDreamer says:

              I make no mention of alternative science, polluting industries or the fossil fuel industry in my challenge.

              I did state that I have read and studied the IPCC assessment reports. (I have also read and studied Oreskes. I have read and studied many other sources as well)

          • Boreas says:


            I can not speak for John or the AA, but this is a “Comments” section in a regional news journal. It isn’t a scientific journal or research clearinghouse. “Personal feelings” (comments) are pretty much the reason for this Comments section. Any posted “personal feelings” here are subject to criticism, whether they are posted by myself, John, or adkDreamer. Criticism in this forum often includes “ad hominem attacks” – especially when one’s views stray far from the mainstream.

            No number of “constructive arguments” are going to be enlightening to someone unwilling to believe overwhelming scientific studies. There is certainly nothing wrong with posting alternative views or interpretations of established science, BUT if one is sensitive to criticism – including “ad hominem attacks” – a local, environmentally friendly news journal may not be the best place to air one’s views – as the readership here and people posting here are often emotionally charged. It is kinda like holding up a golf club with lightning crashing all around.

    • TerryV says:

      Funny your name is adkDreamer because you are.
      I would like to curse you out here but don’t think its allowed.
      I would love to tell you how you are a fool but don’t have the time to explain it to you

  6. Paul says:

    This article doesn’t really explain specifically what the proposed amendment is?

    Is it too complicated to explain to us?

    • John Sheehan says:

      The proposed change is that EPA would no longer be able to count the side-benefits of a proposed pollution rule/regulation when assessing whether the benefits to public health or welfare would be great enough to justify imposing the financial burden of compliance upon the affected industry. It narrows the benefits part of any cost/benefit analysis, making it more likely that a court would strike it down in the face of a court challenge.

  7. Charlie S says:

    Balian the Cat says: “unashamed greed and blithering ignorance are turning this nation back in time.”

    Yeah but we’re gonna make America great again Balian! Haven’t you heard?

  8. Charlie S says:

    Boreas says: “there is mercury in our waters, sediments, fish, and aquatic birds.”

    There is mercury in every body of water on this planet last I heard Boreas. Let us continue on with the old way of doing business. Better yet let us speed it up and gut the EPA, deregulate, put industry insiders in high government “public” positions……………

  9. Charlie S says:

    “Wheeler is a former coal industry lobbyist and former staff member for Sen. James Inhofe, R-OK, who infamously declared he believed global climate change was “a hoax.”

    The fox guarding the henhouse! Didn’t I hear Thump say he was going to drain the swamp? Is there anybody in his administration representing the public?

  10. Charlie S says:

    CommunityGuy says: “Trump and Co. want to allow more MERCURY in our downwind air! This is a vicious poison that can not be remediated. It’s greatest damage is to fetuses, which is lifelong and catastrophic. The next worst harmed group is young children.”

    We’re talking about the party who don’t like women, don’t like gays, don’t like Mexicans, don’t like the poor, don’t like water, frogs, bees, butterflies…… why should they like children? Matter of fact these are the same group who dropped all of those tonnage of bombs initially on Baghdad just some few years ago. Remember that? Dropped them bombs blind on an innocent population just to get to one man. Children and their mommies and daddies outright blown to bits by bombs “Made in the USA.” Little Iraqi children without legs or arms or both, or one or the other….due to those bombs. Do you think they care about American children if they can do that to Iraqi children CommunityGuy?

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