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Attorney General's request to halt mercury rule may have little real-world impact

Cobb power plant in Muskegon, which shut down in April 2016
Tracy Samilton
Michigan Radio

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette has joined a 20-state effort to halt the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's implementation of its Mercury and Air Toxics Rule, which is aimed at limiting mercury emissions from coal-burning power plants.

The application for a stay alleges that the rule has already caused utilities to spend $9.6 billion, for only $4 billion to $6 billion in health benefits.

"Those costs are huge," says Andrea Bitely, a spokeswoman for Schuette. She says the costs are being passed on to Michigan consumers.

But James Clift of the Michigan Environmental Council says the health benefits of reducing mercury, a known neurotoxin, far outweigh the costs – and those costs really aren't that steep.

"What the utilities have shown is they're complying with the mercury rule at a fraction of the cost they predicted it would cost," says Clift.

Clift also believes Schuette's action will have "no impact in the state of Michigan."

Were the Supreme Court to agree and stay the rule, he says, Michigan's very similar mercury rule would go into immediate effect.

DTE and Consumers Energy have already taken many steps to comply with the rule. Consumers Energy will shut down seven of its older, coal-burning plants, and DTE has purchased mercury scrubbers to keep its plants in compliance.

Clift thinks the action by the attorney general is more political in nature than anything else, since it's popular among Republicans to make a show of fighting the EPA.

Still, Clift thinks the attorney general's bid to halt the rule sends a bad signal.

Mike Shriberg of the National Wildlife Federation agrees.

"You'd think he'd be making the health of Michiganders a priority," says Shriberg, "particularly in light of the crisis from unsafe drinking water in Flint."

Shriberg says Michigan needs to reduce mercury emissions even further, especially to protect the health of children, as well as making the state's fish safer to eat for everyone.

Tracy Samilton covers energy and transportation, including the auto industry and the business response to climate change for Michigan Public. She began her career at Michigan Public as an intern, where she was promptly “bitten by the radio bug,” and never recovered.
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