The General James M. Gavin coal plant in southeast Ohio. Credit: Analog Kid / Creative Commons

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Areas of Ohio that benefited the most from the Clean Air Act’s cross-state and mercury rules were primarily white and backed Trump in 2016, researchers report.

Rollbacks of air pollution rules for power plants could have the harshest health impacts on people in Ohio and Pennsylvania who supported Trump over Clinton in the 2016 presidential election, reports a new study. Other eastern states would suffer significant impacts as well.

Researchers at the University of Virginia calculated the potential downside in 20 states if the Trump administration dismantles the Clean Air Act’s transport and mercury air toxics rules. The study is in the December 2018 issue of Energy Policy.

“Something like 17,000 to 39,000 premature deaths are avoided for every year that we stay at current emissions rather than emissions before these two rules were adopted,” said Vivian Thomson, a recently retired professor of environmental sciences and politics at the University of Virginia. Thomson worked on the analysis along with environmental scientists Dominique Ong and Kelsey Huelsman.

What did the study do?

The study included 19 eastern states plus Texas and focused on rules restricting cross-state pollution and limiting emissions of mercury and other toxic compounds. The researchers used U.S. Environmental Protection Agency data and tools to compare pre-recession power plant emissions in 2007 before the rules to actual levels in 2016. The group also mapped the results and compared them to data on demographics and voting patterns.

What did the study find?

Levels of fine particulates in the air improved significantly after the rules were implemented, especially in areas of Ohio and Pennsylvania. Those gains would be lost if the rules are weakened or not enforced and emissions returned to prior levels. Particulate pollution is the fourth leading cause of death worldwide. It contributes to more than 6 million deaths per year, primarily through heart attacks, strokes, lung disease and other ailments.

What does the analysis show about Ohio?

Eighteen of the top 50 counties that benefited the most from the EPA rules are in Ohio, Thomson said. Other coal-producing states that have had cleaner air as a result of the rules include Pennsylvania, Virginia, Illinois, Indiana, Alabama and West Virginia.

Most areas of Ohio that would have worse air quality in the pre-rule scenario have a majority of white people and primarily supported Trump over Clinton in the 2016 presidential election. Similar effects were found in several other states.

Where did the rules come from?

Both rules were required by the Clean Air Act amendments of 1990. Due to challenges and delays, however, they were not finalized and implemented for more than 20 years.

Why did the researchers do the study?

Rollbacks of both rules were part of an “action plan” wish list submitted by Murray Energy Corporation to the Trump administration in March 2017. Thomson’s group began work on its study that summer. “I saw that it looked as if the Trump administration was working its way through [the list],” she said.

Why worry about rollbacks if power plants have already complied with the rules?

Plant owners and operators “are rational actors,” Thomson said. “If you can cut costs, you cut costs.” In her view, companies can’t be counted on to maintain pollution controls if rules are weakened or not enforced.

Some coal plants have already closed or converted to natural gas. So did the study overstate the possible downside from rolling back the rules?

No. “We did not take closed plants and reopen them in our rollback scenario,” Thomson noted. Likewise, the group assumed that converted plants would not go back to coal.

What’s the current status of the cross-state pollution rule?

On October 3, counsel for the Department of Justice argued in support of the rule before the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, along with lawyers for environmental groups and six states. In September, however, the Environmental Protection Agency refused to take other action to stop cross-state pollution, which the states of Maryland and Delaware claimed was making their people sick.

What’s the current status of the mercury rule?

On September 30, EPA proposed weakening the mercury rule to exclude health-based “co-benefits” from it and other regulations. Co-benefits are advantages achieved from reductions in other types of emissions besides those directly regulated by a rule.

Do those co-benefits matter?

A lot, according to the new study — especially in coal producing counties and those with coal-fired power plants.

The EPA itself has used particulate pollution to estimate health impacts of various rules, Thomson noted. Also, not all health impacts can be easily calculated. Mercury emitted by power plants goes into the air and eventually falls on water or land, she noted. From there it gets into different species and can wind up in food. Eating that food can cause neurological and other harm to people. That harm may be hard to calculate, but it is very real, she said.

What do environmental advocates have to say about the Virginia researchers’ study?

“Our key takeaway is that it is no surprise that coal special interests have been checking items off their ‘wish list,’” including the proposed rule rollbacks, said Trish Demeter, vice president of energy policy at the Ohio Environmental Council. “Without a strong backstop, or a groundswell of citizens standing up for clean air, the Trump Administration may be successful in supporting coal interests at the expense of Ohioans’ health.”

What does the study mean for voters?

“If these particular regulations are undermined or not enforced, we collectively in the eastern part of the United States have a lot to lose in terms of important air quality gains,” Thomson said. And many of those people are voters who previously supported Trump.

“I think that when people are given this information, they then think twice about the candidates who have their best interests in mind.” Thomson said.

But that doesn’t mean voters are naïve. “I think this sort of information is not widely known,” Thomson said. The way issues are framed also matters. Many people don’t realize that environmental rules are largely about protecting public health, she noted.

Kathiann M. Kowalski

Kathi is the author of 25 books and more than 600 articles, and writes often on science and policy issues. In addition to her journalism career, Kathi is an alumna of Harvard Law School and has spent 15 years practicing law. She is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and the National Association of Science Writers. Kathi covers the state of Ohio.