EDF and Many Others Defend the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards at the Supreme Court

Source: Daderot (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

On Wednesday (March 25th) EDF and a large group of allies will be at the U.S. Supreme Court as the Justices hear oral arguments on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Mercury and Air Toxics Standards.

EDF has been helping defend these life-saving standards since they were first challenged ­– and upheld – in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

Why is EDF fighting for the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards?

Because they will save lives and protect our families and communities from the harmful effects of toxic air pollutants (including mercury, arsenic, and acid gases) emitted by the single largest source of such pollution in the U.S.: coal-fired power plants.

If you want to get all the legal details, you can read EDF’s brief – and all the other briefs in the case – on our website.

If not, here are two things you should know – points that jumped out at me from reading the many briefs filed in this case in support of the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards:

  • By significantly reducing toxic air pollution from its single largest source, the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards will help ensure that the air we breathe and the fish we eat are cleaner and safer.
  • These pollution reductions absolutely can be achieved. In fact, most of the power sector has already installed pollution control technology to comply with the standards.

This is an incredibly important case for public health. One sign of that is the unusually large number of groups who have submitted briefs in support of these life-saving clean air protections.

In addition to EDF, a broad coalition of states, cities, power companies, medical associations, and clean air advocates are parties to the case in support of the EPA.

And that doesn’t include many more leading experts and affected organizations that have filed amicus curiae briefs.

For those who don’t speak Latin, amicus curiae means “friend of the court.”

A Supreme Court case is not a popularity contest, and the Justices focus first and foremost on the facts and applicable law. But their consideration of a case is often helped when interested citizens or organizations file “friend of the court” briefs. These briefs can offer insights on important technical or scientific issues, show how a particular community might be affected by the Court’s decision, or provide differing perspectives than those offered by the parties to the case.

Fortunately, the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards have many “friends.”

They include: the American Thoracic Society (a group of more than 15,000 physicians, research scientists, nurses, and other healthcare professionals); leading pollution control experts; the Institute for Policy Integrity at NYU Law School; the Constitutional Accountability Center; the Union of Concerned Scientists; companies that manufacture technology for reducing air toxics from power plants; the National Congress of American Indians and a coalition of tribes and inter-tribal fish commissions; and a coalition of preeminent public health scientists led by Dr. Lynn Goldman, Dean of the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University.

Here’s a small sample of what these friends of the court have to say about the health effects of mercury and other air toxics from power plants:

Power plants emit acid gas, metals including mercury, lead, arsenic, cadmium, nickel, and chromium, and particulate matter that can penetrate deep into human lungs. All humans are susceptible to adverse health effects from these emissions, but pregnant women, fetuses, infants, children, elderly people, and people with preexisting health conditions are especially vulnerable.

(Amicus brief of American Thoracic Society at pages 2 and 3)

[I]t is reasonable to believe that any reductions in exposure that can be achieved will have benefits across the population. Even at low exposure levels, methylmercury can lead to reductions in IQ for developing children.  These deficits in IQ may not be clinically apparent in individual children, but on a population level they have cumulative impacts with large public health and economic consequences.

(Amicus brief of Health Scientists, Dr. Lynn Goldman, et al. at page 13)

The emissions harm Indian health, putting tribal members at unusually high risk for neurodevelopmental disorders, cardiovascular disease, autoimmune deficiencies, and other adverse health effects from methylmercury exposure. In addition, mercury emissions harm Indian culture, threatening longstanding traditions of fishing and fish consumption that are central to many tribes’ cultural identity. Finally, mercury emissions harm Indian subsistence, contaminating food sources that many tribal members depend on for survival.

(Amicus brief of National Congress of American Indians, et al. at page 4)

And here’s what other friends of the court say about the feasibility of the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, and its implications for the power sector:

The experience of the states that have implemented mercury rules demonstrates that control of mercury emissions is possible with available technology and can be accomplished on a cost-effective basis and without compromising reliability. . . . [N]early 70 percent of total coal-fired capacity was either in compliance with the MATS or already had plans in place to achieve compliance at the end of 2012.

(Amicus brief of Experts in Air Pollution Control at page 32 and 34)

[Overturning MATS] would penalize those who responsibly sought to comply with the impending Rule and might be unable to recover their expenses for doing so, and would reward those who dragged their heels at the expense of public health.

(Amicus brief of Emission Control Companies at page 23)

This is a tremendous show of support for the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards from a broad and compelling group of leading experts and affected organizations.

In fact, this case is so important and involves so many parties that the Supreme Court has extended the usual amount of time allowed for argument. On Wednesday, the lawyers – including U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli for EPA – will have 90 minutes to argue the case, instead of the usual hour.

We at EDF are proud to stand with EPA, with all our allies, and with the many “friends of the court” to present a forceful case for cleaner, healthier air to the nation’s highest court.

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