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Biden administration restores Obama-era mercury rules for power plants, eyes more regulations in coming months

<i>Kendrick Brinson/The New York Times</i><br/>The Biden administration has on Friday restored Obama-era mercury rules that require coal and oil-fired power plants to reduce toxic pollutants. Pictured is Plant Bowen
KENDRICK BRINSON/The New York Ti
Kendrick Brinson/The New York Times
The Biden administration has on Friday restored Obama-era mercury rules that require coal and oil-fired power plants to reduce toxic pollutants. Pictured is Plant Bowen

By Ella Nilsen, CNN

The Biden administration on Friday finalized a decision to reestablish Obama-era rules that require coal and oil-fired power plants to reduce toxic pollutants, including mercury and acid gas, that come out of their smokestacks.

Mercury is a neurotoxin with several health impacts, including harmful effects on children’s brain development. And while the updated rule significantly benefits public health for communities around these kinds of power plants, it also has the effect of requiring plants to cut down on planet-warming pollution that comes from burning coal to generate electricity.

President Joe Biden’s Environmental Protection Agency announced early last year that it intended to undo a Trump-era rollback of the 2012 mercury pollution rules, one of many Trump-era environmental decisions it has reversed.

“This is a really good day for public health in this country,” EPA Deputy Administrator Janet McCabe told CNN. “We’re talking about mercury, arsenic, acid gases; these are dangerous pollutants that impact people’s health.”

The EPA estimates the 2012 rule brought down mercury emissions from power plants by 86% by 2017, while acid gas emissions were reduced by 96%.

McCabe said the EPA is currently working on its own, stronger mercury standard that it expects to propose “not too long from now” and finalize before the end of Biden’s first term.

The Mercury and Air Toxics Standards rules are part of a larger tranche of regulations the agency is expected to roll out this spring that would cut down on coal-fired power plant pollution, including rules on proper disposal of coal ash.

It also plans to release a much-anticipated rule that would regulate planet-warming pollution like carbon dioxide and methane. That rule is expected to be more limited than climate advocates desire, after the US Supreme Court limited the EPA’s ability to broadly regulate carbon pollution in a ruling last year.

“We’re very mindful of the Supreme Court precedent,” McCabe told CNN. “We’ve been working very, very carefully to craft a rule that will be in the four corners of the direction that the Supreme Court has laid down.”

McCabe said the agency will propose that rule “in the relatively near future,” but did not share specifics about what the rule would do to limit pollution.

Many of the nation’s coal-fired power plants are aging and new ones are not being built — especially as it’s getting more expensive operate existing plans. If the EPA implements stronger federal regulations on mercury, coal ash and greenhouse gas emissions, it could have the impact of more utilities shuttering coal-fired plants, as many are already doing.

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