The Trump administration left a legacy of environmental destruction. During his four years in office, former President Trump rolled back environmental protections put in place by the Obama administration. In May 2020, the Trump administration rolled back the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) for power plants.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued a proposed rule on January 31, 2022, to bring back MATS for power plants. The proposed rule requires significant reductions of mercury, acid gases, and other pollutants. The proposed rule corresponds to President Biden’s January 20, 2021, executive order.
The EPA accepts comments on the proposed rule for 60 days after publication in the Federal Register. The federal agency held a virtual public hearing on February 24, 2022.
“Sound science makes it clear that we need to limit mercury and toxins in the air to protect children and vulnerable communities from dangerous pollution,” said EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan in a statement. “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.”
Fossil fuel-powered plants and pollution
Fossil fuel-powered power plant emissions are sources of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, particulate matter, carbon dioxide, mercury, and other pollutants. Nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide contribute to the formation of ozone and particulate matter, which can cause respiratory and cardiovascular problems. Mercury exposure can cause health problems, including cancer and immune system damage.
Enacted in 2012, MATS required power plants to meet emissions reduction standards in 2016. From 2010 to 2017, mercury emissions from power plants within the U.S. decreased by 86 percent, non-mercury metal emissions decreased by 81 percent, and acid gases decreased by 96 percent. Before MATS, power plants were the most significant source of mercury and other pollutants such as hydrogen chloride and selenium. They were also among the biggest contributors of arsenic, chromium, cobalt, nickel, hydrogen cyanide, beryllium, and cadmium.
The projected impact of MATS on human lives in 2011 would save up to 11,000 lives while bringing up to $90 billion worth of benefits a year. It also would prevent up to 130,000 asthma attacks, almost 5,000 heart attacks, up to 5,700 hospital and ER visits, and up to 540,000 missed work or sick days.
“These safeguards work—and there’s proof, if you look at the decrease in mortality, asthma, and other health outcomes since they first took effect in 2015,” said John Walke, director of the clean air program at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “With the Biden-Harris administration clearing away the Trump EPA’s attempted sabotage of these standards, now EPA needs to strengthen the standards to better protect Americans and U.S. air quality.”
Lower-income and people of color bear a higher burden of pollution
According to the EPA, people of color, low-income, and indigenous populations “ frequently bear a disproportionate burden of environmental harms and adverse health outcomes.” A 2019 study by researchers at the University of Washington and Stanford University, published in the Environmental Science & Technology journal, found that exposure to pollution from power plants is higher for lower-income people and people of color.
A 2012 NAACP report analyzed 378 U.S. coal-fired power plants on environmental justice performance metrics. The report ranked 75 plants with an “F.” Those 75 plants produced eight percent of U.S. electricity in 2005. Still, they accounted for 14 percent of sulfur dioxide emissions and 13 percent of nitrogen oxide emissions. According to the report, the 75 plants “have a considerable and disproportionate impact on people of color and low-income people.” Four million people live within three miles of the 75 plants. The average per capita income of the four million people is $17,500, and nearly 53 percent are people of color.
There is a higher incidence of pollution among communities with people of color, particularly African-American people and lower-income people, according to a 2021 Greenpeace report. African-American people have 1.54 times higher exposure to particulate matter.
Photo by American Public Power Association on Unsplash