Many nations are learning the costs of trade-offs between life and economics. According to a new analysis in one of the world's leading journals, the US government is about to make a similar, but much slower-moving, mistake by understating the damage done by mercury pollution and overstating the costs of removing it.
Even among poisons, mercury stands out, causing brain damage, madness, and muscle atrophy, among a long list. Cats in Minamata, Japan, convulsed after being fed mercury-poisoned fish. The city's inhabitants suffered much slower and more painful deaths.
Worldwide the unregulated mining of precious metals is the largest new source of mercury pollution, but in wealthy countries, coal-burning easily dominates. When mercury emissions fall on the oceans or are washed into rivers, they are converted to methylmercury, which accumulates through the food chain until it gets into our diet.
All this is why the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) tightened regulations in 2012 on the amount of mercury coal-fired power stations could emit. Stations needed to shift to cleaner coal or install scrubbers that remove much of the mercury for safe disposal, rather than releasing it into the atmosphere. The scrubbers are expensive and the regulations have been blamed for the dramatic reduction in American coal use since. However, others argue the falling price of gas and renewable energy sources was more important, but President Trump made denouncing the regulations a key feature of his election campaign.
Under the new administration, the EPA has changed course, proposing to roll back the regulations and allow higher emissions, justified by a cost-benefit model. It's this model that has been the subject of scathing criticism in Science.
According to the authors, the EPA simply ignored recent evidence showing that the effects of mercury are more widespread than previously recognized and they failed to take into that mercury scrubbers also cut down other harmful pollutants. In 2011, the EPA calculated that reductions in particulate emissions alone are worth three to nine times the additional costs. Study author Dr Karen Palmer of Resources For the Future said in a statement the model “dismisses an entire category of benefits.”
Moreover, the paper notes, the modeling does not take into account recent changes to electricity production, acting as if the stunning fall in the price of solar had never happened. The EPA hasn't even checked on the actual costs for power stations abiding by their restrictions. Instead, they are relying on estimates made before the rules were introduced, which frequently turn out to be too high.
According to the paper's authors, the EPA is proposing to sacrifice many lives for economic gain. In this case, however, the gains aren't even real.