U.S. Supreme Court nixes EPA’s mercury limits

Conservative majority ruling puts thousands of lives at risk

Mercury from the Craig Station power plant in northwest Colorado pollutes lakes in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Mercury from the Craig Station power plant in northwest Colorado pollutes lakes in Rocky Mountain National Park.

By Bob Berwyn

FRISCO — The EPA will have to go back to the drawing board if it wants to regulate toxic mercury emissions from factories and power plants, as the U.S. Supreme Court today voided the agency’s 2012 regulations that were set to take effect this year.

In a divided five-four ruling, the court sided with heavy industry and fossil-fuel burning power plants, saying that the EPA should have considered the costs of the regulations as part of its initial evaluation. The EPA had argued that those costs would be evaluated at the next step of the regulatory process.

Mercury is a global pollutant that has been detected in California’s coastal fogs. In a national assessment, the U.S. Geological Survey found unhealthy mercury levels in 25 percent of all U.S. Streams. And near Hawaii, scientists say mercury concentrations in yellowfin tuna have been increasing 3.8 percent a year. Researchers have even documented signs of environmental stress in Alaskan sled dogs who primarily eat mercury tainted fish.

Conservation groups saw the ruling as a blow to public health. The standards would have applied to about 600 power plants, potentially preventing as many as 11,000 pollution-related deaths per year, but the Supreme Court majority said industry profits are more important than public health.

“The court’s decision to let polluters off the hook is a huge setback for our kids’ health,” said Environment Colorado’s Paul Mooney. “But we’ll keep fighting for clean air and a healthier future. Polluters’ days of dumping unlimited deadly toxins into our air are numbered.”

Environment Colorado was among a number of environmental and health organizations who supported the defense of these health safeguards in court.

In response to today’s Supreme Court decision in the cases concerning EPA’s Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (Utility Air Regulatory Group v. EPA, National Mining Association v. EPA and Michigan v. EPA) the League of Conservation Voters (LCV) issued the following statement from LCV Board Chair, Carol M. Browner:

“Over the last forty years, through the authority of the Clean Air Act, we have made meaningful progress in cleaning up the air we breathe,” said League of Conservation Voters board chair Carol M. Browner. “To achieve this progress, we set strong standards based in science and then we find the most effective, efficient and common sense technology to reduce these dangerous pollutants,” said Browner, a former EPA administrator.

“For more than a decade EPA has sought to reduce mercury – a toxic air pollutant – from power plants. Rather than first focusing on the science and how best to protect public health, today’s Supreme Court decision requires EPA to weigh the cost to industry before determining  how much toxic mercury must be cut. It’s an unfortunate decision that puts polluter profits over public health, but it doesn’t remove EPA’s fundamental authority to act to protect public health from dangerous pollutants and EPA should continue to work to find a solution that addresses this toxic pollution,” she concluded.

Power plants are the number one source of mercury, a potent neurotoxin linked to developmental disorders in newborns. More than 4 million women of childbearing age have enough mercury in their bodies to put their children at risk. The standards would have also limited other deadly toxins including arsenic and cadmium, as well as acid gases and organics.

The EPA received more than 800,000 public comments, most of them favoring limits on mercury emissions, but the rules were challenged by some states and other parties, including the anti-environmental National Mining Association and the Utility Air Regulatory Group.

The majority of the court hung its hat on the technicalities of federal rule-making, but dissenting justices said the EPA has followed the same rule-making path for decades. They said the majority’s ruling represents “micromanagement” of the agency’s procedures.


3 thoughts on “U.S. Supreme Court nixes EPA’s mercury limits

  1. “We evaluated the land use, emissions, climate, and cost implications of 3 published but divergent storylines for future energy production, none of which was optimal for all environmental and economic indicators. Using multicriteria decision-makinganalysis, we ranked 7 major electricity-generation sources (coal, gas, nuclear, biomass, hydro, wind, and solar) based on costs and benefits and tested the sensitivity of the rankings to biases stemming from contrasting philosophical ideals. Irrespective of weightings, nuclear and wind energy had the highest benefit-to-cost ratio. Although the environmental movement has historically rejected the nuclear energy option, new-generation reactor technologies that fully recycle waste and incorporate passive safety systems might resolve their concerns and ought to be more widely understood.”


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