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How Our Air and Water Will Grow More Toxic Under Trump

The White House’s mercury rollback is another reckless giveaway to the coal industry, and it will have major impacts on children’s health

President Donald Trump pauses as he speaks during a campaign rally, in Las VegasElection 2018 Trump, Las Vegas, USA - 20 Sep 2018

President Donald Trump

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On abortion, as with everything, President Trump has no moral principles. He’s happy to side with anti-abortion activists if it will help rev up his base. During the campaign, he called for “some form of punishment” for women who chose abortion; he revived the global gag rule that strips U.S. funding from clinics abroad that provide abortions; and he nominated Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court, a conservative who appears to have more experience with chugging beer than with defending the rights of women to have a say over their own bodies.

But if trashing the health and welfare of unborn children will enrich his pals in the coal industry, Trump is happy to oblige.

Exhibit A: On Sunday, The New York Times reported that the administration is planning to roll back mercury regulations on coal-fired power plants. Mercury, as most people know, is one of the most toxic substances on earth. It is potentially harmful to everyone, but pregnant women and children are by far the most vulnerable.

How toxic is mercury? Consider this: In 1997, Dr. Karen Wetterhan, a researcher at Dartmouth College, accidentally spilled a single drop of dimethylmercury, a highly concentrated form often used in lab research, on her hand. She didn’t worry about it — she was wearing latex gloves. She washed the mercury off immediately and didn’t think about it again until five months later, when she began bumping into walls and slurring her words. Her doctors were not able to diagnose what was wrong, then she told them about the drop of mercury. They did a blood test: mercury poisoning. A few months later, Dr. Wetterhan was dead.

Coal-fired power plants are by far the largest emitters of mercury in the United States. According to the EPA, the 100 dirtiest coal plants in America released 17,690 pounds of mercury compounds into the environment in 2017. The mercury is released in two forms, elemental (tiny particles) and gaseous (vaporized). Neither form is as toxic as the dimethylmercury that killed Dr. Wetterhan. For most people, the primary exposure to mercury comes from eating fish. As I described in my book Big Coal, one of the unusual characteristics of mercury is its ability to bio-accumulate in the tissues of living creatures. It often begins when airborne mercury from power plants falls into rivers, lakes and ponds. Bacteria in the soil transforms the mercury into methylmercury, which is then taken up by the plankton and bacteria that live in the water. The bacteria is eaten by little fish, which are in turn eaten by bigger fish. All the while, the level of mercury is rising. By the time the fish is big enough to be caught and eaten by people, the mercury level can be quite high.

As a neurotoxin, mercury is particularly dangerous to the still-forming brains and nervous systems of fetuses and young children. Some studies show that children who are exposed to tiny amounts of mercury in utero have slower reflexes, language deficits and shortened attention spans. In adults, recent studies show an association between increased risk of heart disease and mercury ingested from eating fish. Some researchers believe mercury exposure is responsible for Parkinson’s disease, Multiple Sclerosis, Alzheimer’s and the escalating rate of autism. According to a nationwide survey by the Centers for Disease Control, one in 12 women of childbearing age already have unsafe blood levels of mercury and as many as 630,000 babies in the United States could be at risk for health problems.

Given these well-documented risks, regulating mercury emissions would not seem to be a terribly complex issue. The 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act are very clear about how the law applies to what the act calls “hazardous air pollutants” like mercury: They need to be regulated as strictly as possible with “maximum achievable control technology,” or MACT.

But the coal industry fought these regulations tooth and nail, claiming that reducing mercury emissions was too hard or too expensive and, if enacted, would raise the price of electricity, cost jobs and kill the American economy (which is more or less the same bullshit argument they use for every new regulation). But in 2011, the EPA finally got mercury regulations enacted, and most power companies began installing mercury scrubbers on their coal plants. The U.S. economy, surprisingly enough, did not die.

But a few of the most retrograde players in the coal industry, including Robert E. Murray, who happened to be a big Trump donor, continued to fight against the mercury regulations, seeing no reason why the coal industry shouldn’t be allowed to fill the air and water with as many toxins as they want. In fact, Murray personally requested the rollback of the mercury rule soon after Trump took office, in a written “wish list” he delivered to Energy Secretary Rick Perry.

Murray’s basic argument against the mercury rule goes like this: “Are people who live near coal plants dropping dead in the streets? No, they are not. So what’s the problem?”

As it happens, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, who took over the EPA from the clownishly corrupt Scott Pruitt, used to be a lobbyist for Robert Murray. And, surprise surprise, Wheeler’s EPA has used a new cost-benefit analysis to determine that mercury regulations are too expensive and so what the hell, let’s get rid of them.

This new analysis, it’s important to note, did not find that mercury wasn’t a potent neurotoxin that damaged the nervous systems of children. It just determined that worrying about the damage of the nervous systems of children wasn’t really worth the cost to protect them.

As David Roberts at Vox tweeted:

The final irony in all of this is that when the coal industry sued to stop the implementation of the mercury rule in 2014, the case was heard in the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. The coal industry lost the case, but the dissenting opinion — which basically argued that the health and welfare of unborn children was not worth the price of a mercury scrubber — was written by none other than Brett Kavanaugh.

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