Boiler MACT Rule Would Have Enormous Health Benefits from Air Pollutant Reductions -- And That's Not Even Accounting for the Reduced Mercury Emissions

by Catherine O'Neill

EPA’s proposal to curb emissions from the second largest source of mercury in the United States – industrial boilers and process heaters – has come under fire in recent weeks.  Those industries that would be subject to the “boiler rule” have objected to its costs, and some senators have embraced their claims (see also Lisa Jackson's response). The industry story, however, leaves out important facts.

The industry story does not mention that, on balance, the estimated costs of the rule are dwarfed by the benefits it would deliver in terms of human health. According to the Regulatory Impact Analysis (RIA) for the rule, regulating boilers would result in societal benefits ranging from $18 billion to $45 billion, at a cost of $3.4 billion. Thus, the rule is estimated to deliver net benefits in the neighborhood of $15 billion to $41 billion. To put it another way, these estimates mean that Americans would receive five to twelve dollars in health benefits for every dollar spent to meet the proposed standards.

The benefits accounted for by these numbers reflect real impacts for real people – including some 2,000 to 5,100 fewer premature deaths among us each year; 1,400 fewer people suffering from cases of chronic bronchitis; and 35,000 cases of aggravated asthma prevented.

These figures, moreover, do not even attempt to account for a whole host of the boiler rule’s benefits.  Importantly, while the proposed rule would cut mercury emissions from these sources in half – eliminating 8.3 tons of mercury emissions annually – the resulting benefits aren’t included at all in the RIA’s cost-benefit calculus. In fact, the RIA does not attempt to include the benefits from reducing any of the numerous toxic air pollutants that would be reduced by the rule – it excludes not only mercury, but also other heavy metals and dioxins from its accounting. Were the figures to reflect the considerable benefits of reducing these notoriously toxic pollutants, the cost-benefit tally would even more strongly favor regulating boiler emissions.

And, as I have argued previously ("Mathematics of Mercury" at page 108 in Reforming Regulatory Impact Analysis), any attempt to monetize the benefits of reducing mercury emissions will fail to capture fully what is at stake and to depict on whom the burden of mercury contamination falls. Mercury emitted to the air from boilers and other sources gets deposited to surrounding land and waters; ultimately, it makes its way into fish tissue in the form of methylmercury – a potent neurotoxin to humans. In fact, exposure to even small amounts of methylmercury in utero or during childhood can lead to irreversible neurological damage, placing the developing fetus and children at particular risk. Because fish consumption is the primary route of human exposure to methylmercury, those who depend on fish for food are at the greatest risk from mercury contamination. Low-income fishers, Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders, and members of the various fishing tribes are among the most exposed. In a study of women of childbearing age, while 15.3% of self-identified “White” women of childbearing age had blood mercury levels above the level deemed safe by EPA, this figure more than doubles, to 31.5%, for women who identified themselves as “other” – a category composed primarily of Native Americans, Pacific Islanders, those of “Asian origin,” and those of “mixed race.”. Moreover, many American Indian tribes have rights to fish, including rights protected by treaties and other agreements with the United States. These rights secure the tribes’ continued fishing practices – practices with cultural, spiritual, social, economic, and political dimensions.   In short, the harms of mercury contamination are serious, they are imposed disproportionately on tribes and others who depend on fish for food, and they cannot be captured adequately in monetary terms. By targeting the second largest category of mercury emitters, EPA’s proposed rule would garner benefits that, while likely impossible to quantity, must nonetheless be considered in the balance.

Industry has presented only some of the story. Cost-benefit analysis notoriously undercounts the benefits of health, safety, and environmental regulation, yet even when viewed through the cost-benefit lens, the boiler rule promises benefits far greater than its price tag.  If our accounting is not to be partial (in both senses of the word), we must consider not only the costs but also the benefits of regulating pollution from boilers.

© 2016 The Center for Progressive Reform