Why the Supreme Court mercury case matters

Graham McCahan

Editor’s note on June 13, 2016: In a major victory for public health, the U.S. Supreme Court today rejected the latest attack against the five-year-old Mercury and Air Toxics Standards. The standards set the first-ever national limits on hazardous air pollutants from power plants, yielding up to $90 billion in annual health benefits.

The stakes are high when the Supreme Court hears arguments this week on new standards that – for the first time – establish nationwide limits on mercury and other toxic emissions from power plants.

The Mercury and Air Toxics Standards are in place to protect lives and prevent billions of dollars in health impacts. Unfortunately, some opponents have spent years litigating over these clean air safeguards.

But we have science and a broad coalition of medical professionals, public health organizations, civil rights groups, environmental allies and several large power companies on our side.

We already defended the standards against an array of claims in the U.S. Court of Appeals, and prevailed. Now it’s up to the high Court.

Why are the new standards important?

The Mercury and Air Toxics Standards would each year prevent an estimated 11,000 American premature deaths and 540,000 missed workdays that occur due to asthma and other health problems for which power plants emissions are responsible.

There is also medical evidence showing that elevated blood levels of mercury can damage developing brains and are associated with heart attacks.

Scientists estimate that hundreds of thousands of children are born each year with mercury levels that can impair brain development.

The Environmental Protection Agency determined that the new emission standards will mean fewer trips to emergency rooms and prevent up to $90 billion a year in public health impacts.

By affirming these vital emission standards, the Supreme Court would also help level the playing field for the two-thirds of coal-fired plants that have already upgraded their plants in time for the 2015 compliance deadline.

What is the case about?

The Clean Air Act Amendments have been in place for 25 years, but it took more than two decades for the EPA to adopt national limits on mercury, arsenic, chromium and other toxic metals discharged from around 600 coal and oil-fired power plant, our nation’s single largest source of such contaminants.

Today, these plants emit about 50 percent of all mercury, more than 75 percent of acid gases and up to 60 percent of toxic metals in the United States.

In 2012, the EPA finalized new standards requiring such plants to cut emissions using already-available technology. In fact, nearly two-thirds of plants already have scrubbers and other pollution controls in place to comply.

The question the Supreme Court will decide is whether the EPA “unreasonably refused to consider costs” when it made the threshold decision whether to regulate toxic emissions from power plants. EPA considered costs in the second phase of its decision making focused on how stringently to regulate these toxics. 

Who are the key players in this battle?

The U.S. Court of Appeals upheld the new standards in 2014. However, the State of Michigan, representing 20 states; the National Mining Association; and the Utility Air Regulatory Group, a utility lobbying group petitioned the Supreme Court to hear the case.

The EPA, meanwhile, will be joined by a long list of supporters at the March 25 oral argument.

In addition to Environmental Defense Fund, the coalition mentioned above includes 16 states and a number of cities, four large power companies, Native American tribes, the NAACP, Moms Clean Air Force, pollution control technology companies and leading scientists and doctors.