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Trump’s EPA changed how it evaluates the benefits and costs of regulating air pollutants from power plants fired by coal and oil.
An EPA science advisory board raised issues with the EPA’s approach and recommended doing a new assessment, but that recommendation wasn’t binding.
Advisory board members are considered special government employees, but they do not speak for the EPA as a whole.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi claimed that as Americans grapple with the coronavirus pandemic, President Donald Trump’s administration has weakened public health protections.
"While tens of thousands of Americans are dying from the coronavirus pandemic, the president is yet again seeking to unleash toxic pollution and dirty air into our communities," Pelosi said April 16. "Even President Trump’s own EPA has admitted that this rule threatens to cause serious health problems including brain damage and death and to inflict billions of dollars of economic damage on our struggling economy."
Pelosi referenced an April 16 decision by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to change how it evaluates the benefits and costs of regulating hazardous air pollutants from power plants fired by coal and oil. The agency concluded that the economic benefits of reducing mercury emissions under an Obama-era rule do not outweigh the costs to the power plants of complying with the rules.
PolitiFact looked into Pelosi’s claim that even Trump’s EPA said the new rule would be bad for public health and cost billions of dollars. The facts are more nuanced than Pelosi said.
The main pollutant at issue is mercury due to its impact on public health. When mercury released into the air by power plants reaches bodies of water, it is converted by micro-organisms into methylmercury, a highly toxic substance that builds up in fish.
The most common way people are exposed to mercury is by eating fish contaminated with methylmercury. Some fish have higher levels of mercury that, when consumed, can be harmful to an unborn child, a young child’s developing nervous system, the elderly, people with underlying health conditions, and people who eat a lot of fish.
The EPA regulates emissions of air toxics from coal- and oil-fired power plants under the Clean Air Act. The Obama administration added Mercury and Air Toxic Standards that set federal air pollution limits for power plants, seeking to reduce emissions of mercury and other toxic air pollutants.
The Obama administration estimated that the standards would prevent, annually, up to 11,000 premature deaths, more than 100,000 asthma attacks, about 4,700 heart attacks, reduce hospital and emergency room visits, and hundreds of thousands of days missed from work due to illness.
It projected that the compliance cost to the power plant industry would be about $9.6 billion a year, while the financial value of air quality improvements could range from $37 billion to $90 billion annually.
The benefits calculation under the Obama administration included "co-benefits," which occur when regulation compliance also reduces a pollutant that is not the rule’s primary target. The vast majority of the financial benefits came from a reduction of particulate matter, which can lead to serious health problems. The direct quantified benefit of reducing mercury alone — the intended target — was up to $6 million a year.
The Trump administration reviewed analyses done by the Obama administration and decided to take "co-benefits" out of the equation. Ultimately, it said that the financial benefits of the Obama rule totaled $4 million to $6 million annually (when accounting for reduction of mercury alone), while the annual cost of compliance was $7.4 billion to $9.6 billion.
As a result, the EPA under Trump said it "determined that it is not ‘appropriate and necessary’ to regulate hazardous air pollutant emissions from power plants under section 112 of the Clean Air Act." The rule limiting emission of mercury and air toxics remained in place.
The objection Pelosi is talking about stems from a report by the EPA’s Science Advisory Board.
The board is an independent committee that advises the EPA administrator on the information that is used to develop the agency’s rules. Board members serve as special government employees, but their views do not reflect the views of the EPA, an agency spokesperson told us.
On April 9, the board advised the EPA to do a new assessment on mercury’s impact. It said that the assessment from Trump’s EPA was not all-encompassing and did not take into consideration prior board recommendations. The report was logged before the agency announced the final rule.
The board said it was a departure from the norm for the EPA to "categorically" exclude co-benefits. The move went against both the EPA’s guidance on economic analysis and recommendations of the U.S. Office of Management and Budget.
The EPA reviewed links between methylmercury and brain damage, but the board said the agency should do a new risk assessment that also accounted for mercury’s impact on cardiovascular health.
The EPA’s assessment on exposure to methylmercury excluded commercial fish — such as fish purchased at restaurants or supermarkets, even though it accounts for 90% of the fish consumed by Americans, the report said.
"For this or any future regulation, the EPA should prepare a new exposure estimate that accounts for total exposure," the report said.
Michael Honeycutt, chair of the EPA’s Science Advisory Board, said the board did have concerns with how the EPA did its analysis, but it’s difficult to definitively confirm whether the EPA's new rule would lead to serious health problems, death and billions of dollars of expense.
"The EPA would need to re-do a risk assessment and take into account our recommendations," said Honeycutt, who also is director of the Toxicology Division of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.
Other experts said Pelosi was right to infer that the EPA’s change would be detrimental to public health and cost billions annually.
"The report does not use those precise words, but it is reasonable to infer that the SAB believes that the new rule is ill advised," said Patrick Parenteau, a law professor and senior counsel in the Environmental and Natural Resources Law Clinic at Vermont Law School. He said it was also reasonable to infer that the rule would increase the risk of diseases and that the total benefits of reducing pollutants would "more than offset the costs of pollution controls."
The practical effect of the new procedure is unclear, he said, because it likely will be challenged in court or a new administration may repeal it.
Pelosi said, "Even President Trump’s own EPA has admitted that this rule (on air pollutants) threatens to cause serious health problems including brain damage and death and to inflict billions of dollars of economic damage on our struggling economy."
Trump did not overrule his own EPA, the agency rather did not adhere to recommendations from a science advisory board. The advisory board told the EPA it had concerns with how the agency did a risk assessment and said it should do a new one.
The chair of the advisory board said that in the absence of a new assessment, it was difficult to say definitively whether the rule would have the impact Pelosi said. Other experts say that while the report did not outright say what Pelosi stated, it was accurate to infer that the rule changes could pose serious health risks for Americans.
We rate Pelosi’s statement Half True.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s website, statement, April 16, 2020
Email interview, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s press office, April 17-21, 2020
Email interview, EPA press office, April 21, 2020
EPA.gov, Mercury and Air Toxics Standards — Safer Environment, page last updated on June 8, 2017; Choose Fish and Shellfish Wisely — Should I Be Concerned About Eating Fish and Shellfish?, page last updated Oct. 10, 2019; Particulate Matter (PM) Pollution — Particulate Matter (PM) Basics, page last updated Nov. 14, 2018
EPA.gov, Reducing Toxic Pollution from Power Plants - Final Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS), December 2011
EPA.gov, Compliance Cost, HAP Benefits, and Ancillary Co-Pollutant Benefits for "National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants: Coal-and Oil-Fired Electric Utility Steam Generating Units -- Reconsideration of Supplemental Finding and Residual Risk and Technology Review", April 15, 2020
EPA Science Advisory Board report, April 9, 2020
Giang, Amanda, and Noelle E Selin. "Benefits of mercury controls for the United States." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America vol. 113,2 (2016): 286-91. doi:10.1073/pnas.1514395113
Phone and email interview, Michael Honeycutt, chair of the EPA’s Science Advisory Board and director of the Toxicology Division of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, April 21-22, 2020
Email interview, Patrick Parenteau, a law professor and senior counsel in the Environmental and Natural Resources Law Clinic at Vermont Law School, April 20, 2020
Email interview, Joseph E. Aldy, a public policy professor at the Harvard Kennedy School, April 21, 2020
Email interview, Frankie Wood-Black, Principal of Sophic Pursuits, Inc., April 22, 2020
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