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In the context of Flint, Michigan’s ongoing lead-tainted water crisis, regional environmental groups are calling on Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette to stop his fight against federal rules for mercury emissions from power plants.
The Chicago-based Environmental Law and Policy Center sent a letter to Schuette on March 8, calling on him to stop challenging the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Mercury and Air Toxics Standards in federal court.
Utilities across the country — including the two largest in Michigan, DTE Energy and Consumers Energy — are already moving to comply with the new rules, meaning a court decision to overturn them could have little practical impact.
The rules have reportedly led to the closing of about 100 coal plants nationwide. The EPA says the standards will prevent up to 410 premature deaths in Michigan and create up to $3.4 billion in health benefits this year.
“Why in the world — especially in light of the Flint water tragedy — is Attorney General Bill Schuette and Michigan leading the national litigation to stop or stall mercury pollution reduction standards?” Howard Learner, executive director of the ELPC, said in an interview with Midwest Energy News. “That is simply tone deaf to the reality of the circumstances when it comes to the need to reduce toxic pollution to protect children’s health and the environment.”
Schuette has maintained that the rules would be too costly. In a statement last month as he asked the U.S. Supreme Court to halt the rules, Schuette said: “For more than seven months since this Court’s decision in Michigan v. EPA, (the rule) has already caused irreparable harm. It has imposed literally billions of dollars of compliance costs on utilities, and by extension, all families who use electricity.”
Learner countered: “Now that Consumers Energy and DTE have already installed mercury pollution control equipment, any argument that Attorney General Bill Schuette is making that it would somehow save Michigan consumers money or impact jobs is looking backward rather than today’s reality.”
Learner went on to call Schuette’s challenge based on costs “penny wise and pound foolish,” similar to how Flint’s water supply was tainted by lead as part of an effort to save the city money.
He added that “the irony here” is that even if the mercury rules are overturned in the courts, DTE and Consumers would end up being at a “competitive disadvantage” with utilities in other states that perhaps hadn’t invested in pollution controls. And yet Michigan would still be subject to mercury pollution from those other states, Learner said.
The EPA adopted the mercury rules for coal plants in 2013. Shortly after, in Michigan vs. EPA, Schuette led 19 other states, utilities and coal companies to challenge the standards in federal court.
A federal circuit court upheld the standards in April 2014. After an appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court in June reversed the lower court’s ruling, saying narrowly that the EPA had to revisit the standards and give more consideration to costs. The Supreme Court, however, did not invalidate the rules.
The EPA is expected to issue a final rule by April 15. Schuette’s case is still pending in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.
But following the U.S. Supreme Court’s surprise decision to stay the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, Schuette asked the High Court to essentially do the same for the mercury rules. Chief Justice John Roberts denied Schuette’s request on March 3.
“I have little doubt that when the EPA issues its final rule, some utilities and states will appeal those mercury pollution reduction standards,” Learner said. “It seems they’re appealing anything and everything the EPA is doing.”
Mercury is a neurotoxin that can impair fetal brain development and reduce a child’s IQ and ability to learn. Learner called the rules “sound regulation to avoid mercury contamination of the Great Lakes, inland lakes and rivers that results in the bioaccumulation of mercury in fish, which are eaten by people.”
The EPA estimates $3 to $9 in health benefits for every dollar spent on compliance.
Even if the EPA’s rules are invalidated, Michigan’s statewide mercury rules would take effect, Learner said.
Roberts’ March 3 decision to reject a stay — as well as the ongoing water problems in Flint — drove the ELPC to appeal to Schuette.
“We hope Attorney General Bill Schuette and Michigan public officials have learned the tragic lessons of the Flint poisoned water crisis,” Learner said. “This is the time to know when to hold them and know when to fold them and stop gambling with children’s health.”
A coalition of Michigan groups backing the ELPC is made up of the West Michigan Environmental Action Council, Moms Clean Air Force, Sierra Club Michigan, Michigan League of Conservation Voters and Groundwork for Resilient Communities. All of the groups are members of RE-AMP, which publishes Midwest Energy News.