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EPA proposes rolling back mercury standards that improved air quality in Missouri

An illustration of pollution, 2017
Rici Hoffarth
St. Louis Public Radio
The Environmental Protection Agency is considering revising its 2012 mercury regulations, which have significantly reduced toxic air emissions in Missouri and several other states.

The Environmental Protection Agency is considering making changes to its 2012 mercury standards, which were responsible for major improvements to Missouri’s air quality in recent years.

In 2011, a report from Environment Americashowed that Missouri was one of the top mercury-polluting states in the country. Since then, mercury emissions in the state have dropped by more than 75 percent.

The EPA’s mercury regulations are largely responsible for that major drop in emissions of the toxic metal. Utility companies installed pollution-control equipment at coal-fired power plants in order to comply with strict federal standards. However, the federal agency last week announced that it’s proposing to revise the rule, based on its conclusion that it’s too costly for the coal industry.

“The good news is that the Clean Air Act works,” said John Hickey, director of the Sierra Club’s Missouri chapter. “And that makes it especially troubling that the Trump administration wants to reverse that and allow plants to continue to pollute our landscape with toxic mercury.”

According to a statement from the EPA, regulators estimated that the mercury standards cost power plants $7.4 to $9.6 billion a year. But their economic benefit amounts to $4 to $6 billion a year.

Ameren Missouri did not comment directly on the possible rule reversal. But Steve Whitworth, the company’s senior director of environmental services, noted that Ameren has reduced 90 percent of its mercury emissions across all four of its power plants.

“I think it’s hard to predict the future,” Whitworth said. “We’ll continue to comply and ensure we’re meeting the environmental regulations as we’re required to do.”

To meet federal standards, the company installed pollution-control equipment, such as the $600 million scrubbers at the Sioux Energy Center in West Alton. Ameren Missouri’s facilities achieved compliance with the federal rule in April 2016.

Environmentalists, however, fear that a rule reversal could harm public health. The Obama administration estimated that the mercury regulations could prevent up to 11,000 premature deaths a year. The same equipment that removes mercury emissions also removes other toxic air pollutants, Hickey said.

“We have a successful program that is saving lives, and yet, still, the Trump administration wants to cook the books so that polluters can continue to pollute at will,” Hickey said.

Follow Eli on Twitter: @StoriesByEli


Eli is the science and environment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.