Public health imperiled to aid dying U.S. coal industry

It’s hard to believe anyone would propose actions that would release more mercury into the environment.

But nothing the Trump administration does surprises me anymore, especially when it comes to polluting our air and water.

On Dec. 28, President Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency announced its first step toward sabotaging the Mercury and Air Toxic Standards rule.

The rule aims to reduce dangerous levels of mercury, heavy metals, arsenic and other toxic air pollutants released from coal- and oil-burning power plants.

Coal-burning power plants are the largest source of mercury pollution.

Burning coal to produce power releases mercury into the air, where it falls to earth locally or downwind into neighboring regions.

Bacteria then convert it into methylmercury, a highly toxic form of mercury, which is readily taken into the food chain by insects, fish and other wildlife.

Because mercury bioaccumulates, large predator fish such as walleye and trout can have mercury levels more than 1 million times that of the surrounding water.

Mercury is a potent neurotoxin that has a wide range of health effects on both humans and wildlife. Humans are exposed primarily through consuming fish — either commercial fish such as tuna and swordfish, or sport fish caught in polluted lakes and streams.

Over time, mercury can reach dangerously high levels in our bodies.

For example, the EPA estimates that one in six women of childbearing age has enough mercury in her body to put her developing fetus at risk of developmental problems.

Both the EPA and the Food and Drug Administration recommend that children and women of childbearing age avoid eating any shark, swordfish, king mackerel or tilefish.

Because mercury had been unregulated for so long, nearly every body of water in our country is contaminated with it, causing 46 states to issue fish consumption advisories.

Pennsylvania is no exception. In addition to a general, statewide health advisory for recreationally caught sport fish,

Pennsylvania lists an additional 92 lakes and streams so contaminated with mercury that they recommend eating only one or two meals of fish per month, depending on the water body.

These 92 streams and lakes encompass thousands of stream miles and thousands of acres of lakes.

Ironically, the very industry that the rule would benefit opposes the rollback in protection.

In a letter dated June 10, 2018, Edison Electric Institute, the American Public Power Association, the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association and others, wrote to EPA stating that: “It is important to note that all covered plants have implemented the regulation and that pollution controls — where needed — are installed and operating.”

Their letter ends by saying that “we urge EPA to move forward to leave the . . . rule in place and effective.”

Exelon, one of the largest producers of electricity, has informed the EPA that the mercury standards rule has had substantial health and environmental benefits and it has cost a fraction of what industry had originally claimed.

Exelon has argued that weakening the mercury rule would potentially kill jobs across the south and waste billions the industry has spent cleaning up pollution.

So, if mercury is so toxic, and the industry doesn’t want it, why does the Trump administration propose this rollback?

The answer lays in Trump’s ongoing commitment to prop up the coal industry and benefitting one company in particular.

Murray Energy Co., one of the largest U.S. coal companies, was a major contributor to the president’s inauguration and CEO Robert Murray reportedly urged the administration to change the mercury rule.

The company now has a special friend in the administration in the form of ex-coal lobbyist and the new EPA administrator, Andrew Wheeler, who once worked for the law firm that represented Murray.

If you’re like me, you must be tired of the dishonest argument that we must sacrifice our environment in order to allow polluting industries to continue poisoning our streams and lakes.

Although industry has already spent more than $18 billion to implement the rule Trump proposes to roll back, the real cost of not having mercury regulations has been borne by the public for a long time in terms of polluted air and water that puts our citizens and wildlife at risk.

The Trump administration that wants us to return to the bad old days.

It’s time our elected representatives worked to protect our health, safety and environment instead of trying to prop up an industry that is on its way out.

Ed Perry of Boalsburg is the Pennsylvania Outreach Coordinator for the National Wildlife Federation Global Warming Campaign. Email him at