By Ignatus Own work CC BY 30 httpcreativecommonsorglicensesby30 via Wikimedia Commons
By Ignatus (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

In the wake of  several monumental Supreme Court decisions, this past Monday,  the Supreme Court produced yet another controversial ruling. The case being argued was Michigan vs. EPA which concerned the regulation of mercury emissions from power plants across the United States.

Mercury, a highly toxic liquid metal, causes many health problems when consumed. According to the EPA, ingestion of mercury can lead to impairment of the peripheral vision, speech, hearing, and walking. High mercury levels can also affect the immune system, and general cell functions. Deterioration of major organ systems can cause renal failure, respiratory failure, and even death.

By AESbg Own work CC BY-SA 40 httpcreativecommonsorglicensesby-sa40 via Wikimedia Commons
By AESbg (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

The EPA, in its pursuit to preserve the environment and protect public health, used the Clean Air Act of 1990 to justify their regulation on the amount of mercury that could be released during energy production by American power plants. This campaign was a controversial one because even though these regulations would go to great lengths to protect public health, they would cost power plants around $9.6 billion per year.

Though the EPA’s emissions standards seemed fairly straightforward and clear, a handful of businesses found a loophole in federal mercury restrictions: state exemptions. Below is an excerpt from Chicago Line Cruises’ White Paper The Global Freshwater Crisis which investigated one example of these state exemptions at use.

BP Whiting Refinery to Downtown Chicago photograph by Joey Lax-Salinas flickr httpsflickrppiLUDg
“BP Whiting Refinery to Downtown Chicago” photograph by Joey Lax-Salinas flickr (

In June 2013, the BP Whiting Refinery received a new 5-year exemption from the Indiana State EPA, renewing its previous 2007 exemption, allowing the company to continue avoiding federal EPA standards for mercury pollution. The plant is approximately 20 miles southeast of downtown Chicago and regularly discharges waste into Lake Michigan. The 2013 deal with the Indiana EPA waived federal standards for mercury pollution at the Whiting Refinery. According to the agreement, restrictions would be lessened in exchange for BP’s promise to pursue green technology in order to reduce toxic ammonia levels, total suspended solids, and mercury discharge by 2012.

Predicting, however, that BP would fall short of its deadline in 2011, the Indiana EPA absolved BP of its responsibility to comply with federal standards by the originally scheduled deadline. The Whiting facility is still legally allowed to dump an inflated average of 23.1 parts per trillion of mercury-laden wastewater into Lake Michigan while the federal limit is set at only 1.3 parts per trillion.

Since the extension agreement, BP has spent $3.8 billion for the plant’s expansion, making it the seventh largest refinery in America. Indiana officials cite the thousands of construction jobs and the 80 refinery jobs supported by the plant to justify their generosity into BP. However, as former US EPA administrator Carol Browner explained in 1999 that, “the risks posed to human health and to the Great Lakes themselves by these toxic pollutants are simply too high to ignore.”

Justice Antonin Scalia Photograph by United States Mission Geneva Justice Antonin Scalia Speaks with Staff at the US Mission in Geneva flickr httpsflickrpa3CKEW
Justice Antonin Scalia; Photograph by United States Mission Geneva “Justice Antonin Scalia Speaks with Staff at the U.S. Mission in Geneva” flickr (

The hazardous nature of Mercury and the serious health risks that it poses make Monday’s Supreme Court ruling even more surprising. In a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court sided with the state of Michigan and the power plants. The basis for their decision came down to the US EPA’s lack of concern for how much their regulations would cost the power plants. In the majority opinion, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote, “The Clean Air Act directs the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate emissions of hazardous air pollutants from power plants if the Agency finds regulation ‘appropriate and necessary.’… [the] EPA refused to consider whether the costs of its decision outweighed the benefits. The Agency gave cost no thought at all, because it considered cost irrelevant to its initial decision to regulate.”

Though this impairs the EPA’s ability to establish regulations on mercury emissions for the time being, it may not make a large difference in the amount of mercury emissions from many power plants in the United States. There are already a handful of plants that have enforced the EPA’s regulatory standards and are already operating with mercury-reducing equipment. It is expected that the EPA will continue to fight to reinstate their mercury regulations  but until legal precedent can be established, the future of mercury emissions standards remains unclear.