The Utility MACT Rule, the most recent skirmish in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) war on coal, is based on flimsy scientific evidence of actual health effects and again demonstrates the agency’s indifference to conducting rigorous scientific inquiry. The end justifies the means is not science.

The Utility MACT Rule established the first-ever maximum achievable control technology (MACT) standard for the emissions of hazardous air pollutants from coal-fired power plants. Understanding how the EPA developed its scientific justification for the rule meant wading through dozens and dozens of highly technical reports. The Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) performed that onerous task for us and has published a comprehensive analysis of the EPA’s scientific basis for the rule. Its new report, “All Pain and No Gain: The Illusory Benefits of the Utility MACT,” is available on the CEI web site. Lead author and Senior Fellow Marlo Lewis, Jr. granted me permission to quote from that report.

Indeterminate Health Benefits

The health effect studies by the EPA are based on that portion of atmospheric mercury that lands in bodies of water and ends up in aquatic food chains. The EPA’s December 2000 “appropriate and necessary” determination, the trigger for the MACT Rule, determined from computer modeling that 7% of the pregnant women in the U.S. have blood mercury concentrations exceeding the EPA’s reference dose (the “safe exposure level”) of 5.8 ppb. The reference dose is one-tenth the benchmark dose of 58 ppb, the mercury level associated with any health effects. Interestingly, the highest level found in any woman mentioned in any of the Center for Disease Control’s epidemiological studies was 21 ppb.

The EPA’s modeling predicted that there are 24,000 prenatally exposed children born to women in the U.S. each year who live “in subsistence fishing households [and] consume enough methylmercury in self-caught fish to impair fetal cognitive and neurological development” (italics mine). That sounds like a lot, but the mothers of those 24,000 children, who received doses of mercury sufficient to produce a benchmark dose (58 ppb), exist only “in the EPA’s computer models,” not in real life.

Facts are often stubborn and unyielding. “In the 22 years since the Clean Air Act tasked the EPA to study the health risks of mercury, and the 12 years since EPA published its ‘appropriate and necessary’ determination, the agency has not identified” a single child whose learning or other disabilities can be traced to prenatal mercury exposure caused by coal-fired power plants.

The EPA also must show a causal connection between the benchmark levels of mercury in the blood stream and specific health effects to justify rulemaking. Lacking examples in the U.S., the EPA turned to epidemiological studies of people in New Zealand, the Faroe Islands, and a 20-year study of children in the Seychelles. In sum, “none of those children was learning disabled, or cognitively abnormal in any way, despite having mercury exposures many times greater than those of most American children,” and the effect on IQ was indeterminate.

Despite the results of these studies, the EPA determined, again through computer modeling, that the rule will avert the loss of 511 IQ points, which translates into 0.00209 IQ points for each of the estimated 24,000 prenatally exposed children in the study group. Psychologists will tell you that the standard error of a typical IQ test is 3 points. The EPA computers then translated that miniscule loss in IQ into the present value of lost lifetime earnings—$0.5 million to $6 million. To suggest that IQ can be calculated to five decimal places is ludicrous, but to then suggest that there is a direct relationship between IQ and lifetime earnings at such small increments of IQ borders on the absurd.

High Cost of MACT

There are many other discrepancies in the science used by the EPA to justify the MACT Rule, such as the agency’s reliance on co-benefits, particularly removal of fine particulates (particulates are regulated under a different rule). If the industry’s estimate of $98 billion of added costs is accurate, the cost/benefit ratio of the MACT rule is wildly out of proportion and scientifically unjustified. Many other scientific and technical problems with the EPA’s mercury analysis are discussed in the CEI report, including pages of references to each of these studies.

One final problem with the EPA’s basic analysis of mercury requires mention. The EPA’s estimate of the amount of mercury discharged into the environment from power plants, and used in the rulemaking, was 46 tons in 1990 (about 18% of mercury from all sources). The amount was projected to rise to 60 tons a year in 2010. Instead, only about 48 tons were discharged in 2010 and 29 tons were discharged in 2011—more than 50% below the EPA’s estimate.

The End Game

Niccolo Machiavelli (b. 1469) is best known in the West for The Prince, a book that describes the politics of power, particularly how a new prince should wield power to build an enduring political structure. In the book, Machiavelli writes, “I shall do a minor evil to achieve a greater good.”

It’s clear to me that EPA’s politically appointed leadership believes that the perversion of science is a “minor evil” committed to achieve the “greater good” of ridding the nation of coal-fired power generation. Science may be the first casualty in the EPA’s war on coal, but all of us are its victims.

Dr. Robert Peltier, PE is POWER’s editor-in-chief.