Protections that Curb Toxic Coal Plant Pollution Under Attack

The Mercury and Air Toxics Standards save more than 10,000 lives and avoid as many as 130,000 asthma attacks each year. Keeping them strong is more important now than ever.
American Electric Power’s John Amos coal-fired plant in Winfield, West Virginia.
Credit: Wigwam Jones via Flickr

UPDATE: On January 31, 2022, the U.S. Environmental Protect Agency proposed to restore its previous finding under the Clean Air Act that it is “appropriate and necessary” to regulate mercury, lead, and scores of other hazardous air pollutants from coal- and oil-fired power plants. The move would reverse a Trump administration rollback and reinstate EPA’s authority for applying the clean air protections known as Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS). “These safeguards work,” says NRDC’s John Walke. “And there’s concrete proof, if you look at the decrease in mortality, asthma, and other health outcomes since MATS was first put in place.” 

The Mercury and Air Toxics Standards save more than 10,000 lives and avoid as many as 130,000 asthma attacks each year. Keeping them strong is more important now than ever.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency today finalized its rollback to undermine the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS), long-standing protections that limit the release of more than 80 dangerous and toxic air pollutants from coal-fired power plants and that save thousands of American lives each year.

“This is an absolute abomination,” says NRDC president Gina McCarthy. “This final rule will increase the risk of more kids with asthma and brain damage, and more people with cancer.”

The EPA’s decision comes just as new research shows that long-term exposure to air pollution—which causes disease and weakens the respiratory system’s ability to fight infections—is associated with significantly higher death rates from the coronavirus in the United States. “Undermining these vital safeguards now also directly threatens the people hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic,” McCarthy says, “making it even harder to breathe and putting people with respiratory illnesses at even higher risk.”

Passed in 2011 when McCarthy headed the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, the standards were the first of their kind to curb the air pollution from notoriously dirty power plants that burn coal and oil and release toxins like arsenic, lead, acid gases, and mercury into the air. Powerful neurotoxins, mercury and lead, are particularly dangerous for pregnant women and the developing nervous systems of children. Other hazardous air pollutants limited under MATS have been linked to health risks like cancer, heart attacks, strokes, and respiratory illnesses.

At the time of their passing, NRDC clean air expert John Walke dubbed MATS the “most important action to clean up air pollution from dirty coal-burning power plants since the Clean Air Act was last updated in 1990.”

Each year, the standards prevent up to 11,000 premature deaths, 130,000 asthma attacks, and nearly 5,000 heart attacks—delivering up to $90 billion in health benefits, including 540,000 days when Americans will not miss work or school.

By comparison, the EPA estimated in 2011 that compliance costs for industry would be less than $10 billion annually—though actual implementation costs have shown to be even lower. Virtually all U.S. power plants that burn oil or coal have already been complying with the standards since 2016.

“We’ve seen a nearly 90 percent reduction in the brain-damaging impacts of mercury that has improved health outcomes for millions of kids,” McCarthy says, “and it was accomplished without threatening electricity reliability or consumer prices.”

The EPA’s move is the latest gift to industry, coming just weeks after the agency announced it would stop enforcing against polluters during the pandemic and rolled back clean car and fuel-efficiency standards.

“The only ones who benefit from this are powerful polluters—at the expense of our health and our children’s health,” McCarthy says. “We can do better, we must do better, and we are going to fight this in court to make sure we do.”


Related Blogs