WASHINGTON—The U.S. Supreme Court is reviewing a challenge by industry groups and Republican-led states that want to roll back Obama administration environmental rules aimed at reducing power plant emissions of mercury and other hazardous air pollutants that contribute to respiratory illnesses, birth defects and developmental problems in children.
The justices are hearing arguments March 25 in a case about the authority of the Environmental Protection Agency to take action against coal- and oil-fired power plants that are responsible for half the nation’s output of mercury. The EPA’s rules on emissions of chromium, arsenic, acid gases, nickel, cadmium as well as mercury and other toxic substances is supposed to begin taking effect in April, and be in full force next year.
The court is to decide whether the Clean Air Act requires that costs be a factor in the initial decision on whether to regulate hazardous air pollutants from power plants, or whether health risks are the only consideration. The EPA did factor in costs, but only at a later stage when it wrote the standards that are expected to reduce the toxic emissions by 90 per cent.
The costs of installing and operating equipment to remove the pollutants before they are dispersed into the air are hefty _ $9.6 billion a year, the EPA found.
But the benefits are much greater, $37 billion to $90 billion annually, the agency said. The savings stem from the prevention of up to 11,000 deaths, 4,700 nonfatal heart attacks and 540,000 lost days of work, the EPA said. Mercury accumulates in fish and is especially dangerous to pregnant or breastfeeding women, and young children, because of concern that too much could harm a developing brain.
A disproportionate share of the 600 affected plants, most of which burn coal, are in the South and upper Midwest. Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, representing 21 states at the Supreme Court, said the law requires the EPA to take account of costs before deciding whether to step in. The states and industry groups also said the agency overstated the benefits of reducing mercury emissions.
Shuttering older plants or installing pollution-control equipment also will reduce emissions of particulate matter, such as dust, dirt and other fragments associated with a variety of respiratory ailments. The administration said it properly took those benefits into account, but the challengers argued that they are not relevant to the case.
Several utilities that already have installed the equipment or that primarily rely on natural gas and nuclear power to make electricity said the EPA rules are economically practicable. Moreover, they said that until the rules take effect their competitors who haven’t yet complied with the rules have an unfair advantage. Another 16 states and several large cities also are backing the administration.
Congress first ordered the EPA to study the release of mercury among 180 toxic substances in 1990. The agency initially decided to go ahead with the limits on power plant emissions in 2000, the final year of the Clinton administration.
After President George W. Bush took office in 2001, the EPA tried to undo its earlier decision, but the federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., blocked that attempt. When Barack Obama became president in 2009, the agency again decided to move forward. It issued final rules in 2012 and the appeals court upheld them last year.
A decision is expected by the end of June.