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Biden reinstates mercury rules

By Coral Davenport

© The New York Times Co.

WASHINGTON » The Biden administration Monday reinstated a way of measuring the benefits of reducing air pollution, the first step in a plan that could tighten limits on the amount of mercury that can be discharged from coal-burning power plants.

Mercury is a neurotoxin that poses a particular danger to the brain development of children and fetuses.

The mercury announcement is among several recent actions taken or planned by the Biden administration that are aimed at reducing pollution.

In many cases, the Biden administration is restoring environmental regulations that had been weakened by President Donald Trump before it lays the groundwork for even stronger rules to come.

The EPA has limited mercury emissions from coal plants since 2012. But during the Trump administration, the agency concluded that the rule’s cost to industry outweighed its benefits and therefore it was no longer “appropriate and necessary.” That finding allowed the Trump administration to stop enforcing the mercury limit, even though it remained on the books.

The Biden administration is now proposing to return to an Obama-era method of calculating the impact of regulation in a way that considers collateral benefits, such as reducing fine particulate matter and smog, when estimating the gains expected from lower mercury emissions.

Using that method would enable the EPA to conclude that the costs of the rule to industry is offset by public health benefits such as prevention of disease and premature deaths. That would provide the legal justification to enforce the existing mercury regulations. The EPA will open the proposal for a 60-day comment period and is expected to finalize the policy later this year. The agency will also take public comments on whether it should tighten the existing mercury regulation even further.

“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 Michael Regan, the EPA administrator.

Environmental advocates praised the renewed enforcement of the mercury rule, which was the first federal standard to require power plants to install expensive “scrubber” technology to reduce emissions of the neurotoxin.

While some in the coal industry oppose the return to enforcing the mercury rule, many electric utilities that operate coal-burning power plants are expected to support it, as they had already invested years ago in the “scrubbers” to tamp down emissions.

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