Did You Have 'Let's Not Regulate Mercury' In The 'Clean Coal' Betting Pool? Congrats!
Photo: Tony Webster, Creative Commons license 2.0

Under the Trump administration, the Environmental "Protection" Agency has adopted the vital mission of doing everything it can to prop up the dying coal industry, largely because 1) Coal CEO Robert Murray is among Donald Trump's best billionaire buds and 2) every last trace of Barack Obama's presidency must be eradicated. To that end, the New York Timesreports the EPA is now planning to "change how it calculates the health risks of air pollution," to make it easier to reverse Obama's "Clean Power Plan" regulations and replace them with far dirtier air, for coal company fun and profit. It's remarkably similar to another bit of EPA fuckery from December, when the agency decided it was no longer "appropriate and necessary" to regulate mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants, claiming that the costs of regulating the neurotoxin was very very burdensome and wouldn't provide any real savings by comparison. In both cases, fucking around with the math and redefining pollutants as No Big Deal are at the heart of the agency's claims that coal plants can spew more pollution without doing any harm.

Now, before you freak out, we will not be making you do math. Stop whining, you. Rather, we just want to highlight once again how Team Trump changes the definitions of things to give a great big benefit to dirty energy while insisting that it's "protecting" the environment.

In proposing the new Trump energy plan, the "Affordable Clean Energy" rule, the EPA acknowledged, in the fine print, that additional pollution from burning all that coal would cause between 470 and 1,400 additional deaths per year, thanks mostly to additional particulate emissions.

You see, the EPA sets a maximum standard for "acceptable" particulate emissions, and only demands industry not pollute more than that. Under the proposed new scheme, EPA estimates of the health effects of keeping dirty old coal plants online would simply ignore any effects of legal levels of emissions, as if "legally allowed" equals "perfectly healthy," which it does not.

The Timesnotes this is kind of a big hairy deal:

In this case, the proposed methodology would assume there is little or no health benefit to making the air any cleaner than what the law requires. Many experts said that approach was not scientifically sound, and that, in the real world, there are no safe levels of the fine particulate pollution associated with the burning of fossil fuels.

Fine particulate matter — the tiny, deadly particles that can penetrate deep into the lungs and enter the bloodstream — is linked to heart attacks, strokes and respiratory disease.

So on paper at least, the air would suddenly be much cleaner and projections of deaths and illness from all those particulates would be ignored, regardless of how many new or worsened cases of childhood asthma started turning up in poor communities. Not to worry -- Obamacare will go away too and then no one will have to hear about the little takers anymore.

EPA air quality honcho William L. Wehrum, a former fossil fuel and chemical industry lawyer and lobbyist of course, explained it's just silly to think there's anything to worry about from levels of pollution already considered minimally "safe":

He noted that, in some regulations, the benefits of reduced particulate matter have been estimated to total in the range of $40 billion.

"How in the world can you get $30 or $40 billion of benefit to public health when most of that is attributable to reductions in areas that already meet a health-based standard
," he said. "That doesn't make any sense."

Perhaps someone should ask Mr. Wehrum whether he'd like to have his children, if any, exposed to the maximum "safe" level of, say, X-ray radiation for humans, since anything up to that limit is completely safe.

Or he could try this analogy on for size:

To put the matter in perspective, most scientists say particulate matter standards are like speed limits. On many highways, a limit of 65 miles per hour is considered reasonable to protect public safety. But that doesn't mean the risk of an accident disappears at 55 m.p.h., or even 25.

Oh, don't give them any ideas. We can see NHSTA proclaiming that, henceforth, accident and car safety statistics will only count deaths occurring when drivers were breaking the posted speed limit.

Similar definitional fuckery was at work when the EPA decided to rethink how it approaches standards for mercury emissions from power plants. It was all about definitions of what counts as a health benefit of reducing pollution. The Obama administration put in place a 2012 rule tightening the allowable level of mercury from burning coal, but the coal industry didn't like that, because it would require costly refitting of existing plants. So in December, the EPA changed the way it would calculate the risks and benefits of mercury emissions.

The new calculations represent a dramatic shift from the EPA's 2012 estimate that the requirements would lead to $37 billion to $90 billion worth of benefits from fewer asthma attacks, heart attacks and premature deaths -- mostly by indirectly reducing airborne particle pollution.

President Donald Trump's EPA now is effectively ignoring those so-called co-benefits and focusing only on the direct potential benefits from slashing mercury emissions.

Suddenly, by refusing to acknowledge the very real secondary health benefits, the cost-benefit analysis made regulating mercury a total waste of time:

According to the new EPA analysis, the costs of complying with the rule are projected at $7.4 billion to $9.6 billion annually, while monetized benefits are estimated to be just $4 million to $6 million each year.

The EPA didn't go quite so far as actually loosening up mercury emissions standards, but the change in how benefits were calculated was seen by many as a first step toward such a change, and would simply not assume that any emissions that meet the minimal standards are perfectly OK healthwise. That's dubious, since mercury, like fine particulates, is pretty fucking nasty stuff:

Coal-fired power plants are the largest U.S. source of mercury, a metal that is converted in soil and water into a neurotoxin that can lower IQ, cause motor function deficits, damage the nervous system, and lead to more heart attacks.

The new framework would also be a huge benefit to Donald Trump's particular friend Robert Murray, CEO of Murray Energy, which runs a whole lot of dirty coal-fired plants. While other loser utilities spent at least $18 billion to bring their coal-fired plants into compliance with the 2012 standards, Murray took the visionary stance that if he backed Trump, told Trump what to do, and wished real hard, he could get the regulations overturned and rake in more profits, at least until coal collapses under its own inefficient weight in the marketplace. And then maybe Trump can mandate old plants be kept open or even subsidized.

Thank goodness Republicans don't believe in picking economic winners and losers, huh? Guess we need an impassioned rightwing editorial about how helping Robert Murray is a slap in the face to utilities that cleaned up their coal plants.

So there you go, we 'splainered the fuckery with hardly any math at all. Also, in our version of a Rod Serling vision of hell, Robert Murray and Donald Trump would spend eternity having to care for children who can't breathe because of the healthy air those two want for America. The babies gasping for air would all look like them, since there's no one else they care about.

[Bloomberg / NYT / Photo: Tony Webster, Creative Commons license 2.0 (Image cropped)]

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Doktor Zoom

Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.


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