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States ask Supreme Court to stop critical mercury rule

Posted by Kathy Attar, MPH on February 26, 2016

Twenty states asked Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts to stay the Mercury and Air Toxics rule, whose goal is to cut toxic mercury emissions from power plants.

The Mercury and Air Toxics (MATS) rule, issued by EPA in December 2011, requires coal-burning power plants to reduce emissions of mercury, lead, arsenic and other harmful air pollutants. Coal plants are the country's largest emitters of mercury. The standards will prevent 11,000 premature deaths a year and yield up to $90 billion in health benefits.

Those benefits greatly outweigh the anticipated costs of the rule, expected to be $9.6 billion per year.

Last year the Supreme Court sent the rule back to the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals for further action. In December the D.C. court rejected industry's request to toss out the rule, saying the EPA instead had to redo its cost analysis.

The states' request to stay the MATS rule is driven by the Supreme Court's February decision to block implementation of the Clean Power Plan (CPP). The Court in the CPP case made the unprecedented decision to grant a stay of an EPA rule before the rule had undergone judicial review. The states in their MATS petition are asking the court to take the same action.

The death of Justice Antonin Scalia earlier this month could affect the states' chances of getting a stay from the Supreme Court. Without Scalia, the conservatives no longer have a majority on the now evenly divided court.

From a public health perspective, the MATS rule is a clear win. Pregnant women and children are particularly vulnerable to the toxic effects of mercury, exposure to which occurs primarily from consuming contaminated fish. Hundreds of thousands of children are born each year with dangerous levels of mercury in their bodies, putting them at heightened risk for developmental disabilities. This is particularly concerning given the increasing incidence of autism and other neurological problems among U.S. children.

The reductions that would be achieved in lead, arsenic and other harmful air pollutants would further benefit health, for children and for adults.

Let's hope the Supreme Court places public health above special interests and allows the MATS rule to be implemented without further delay.

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