Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) Series Part I: Overview

Environmental policies are systemically intertwined with science, politics, economics and history.  Effective environmental policies improve public health, environmental justice concerns and take flora and fauna into consideration.  Beyond law and regulation, there is a feedback loop between environmental policy and environmental advocacy.  Advocates may push for new legislation or new legislation may empower advocates.  In 2011, through a combination of advocacy and political will, Mercury and Air Toxics Standards were developed and implemented.  Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) are the first federal standards that require power plants to limit their emissions of toxic air pollutants like mercury, arsenic and other heavy metals (“Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) for Power Plants”).  MATS can serve as a lens to view contemporary issues with environmental policy in the United States.

The new MATS policy shares systematic features of other environmental policies, with complex ties to economics, politics and history, but has a distinguishing feature that makes it a stand alone, necessary piece of environmental legislation.  Beyond the generic issues with environmental policy, MATS are eminent because of their clear connection to public health.  The scientific connection between air pollution and health conditions like asthma is firm and widely accepted.  There is scientific certainty that people will lose their lives if MATS are not implemented.  The public health component of MATS sets it apart from other environmental policies because mothers and women of childbearing age stand behind MATS to protect the health of their children.

Infants and children are not old enough to consent to the risk of air pollution, so a lobby of strong mothers speaks for them.  When these children grew, they should not believe that they have consented to lesser health and the mothers are there to prevent that from happening.  While other environmental policies may examine the costs and benefits of implementation of the regulation by monetization, substituting the value of the life of a child for however many tons of air pollution does not sit well with the general public.  Children cannot relate to an amount of money being equlivalent to their time spent outside, therefore contributing to their risk of air pollution.  Although MATS fit the mold of generic issues with environmental policy, they are distinguished as necessary regulation because of the problems with substituting monetary values for children’s health.

MATS mark the first time that United States coal and oil-fired power plant operators are required to limit emissions of mercury and other air pollutants.  There are federal limits on mercury emissions from waste incinerators and other sources, but until 2012, there had been no limits on coal-fired power plants, the single largest source of mercury emissions, according to the EPA.  The agency received more than 900,000 comments from industry and the general public to help decide what the standard should be (Hudson).  The emission standards are federal air pollution limits that individual facilities must meet by a set date.  For existing facilities, EPA must set emissions standards that are at least as stringent as the emission reductions achieved by the average of the top 12 percent of best controlled facilities (“Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) for Power Plants”).

The Clean Air Act of 1990 signed by President George H.W. Bush called for the EPA to conduct studies to determine whether regulating mercury and other air pollutants from power plants was “appropriate and necessary.”  The EPA found that it was, in fact, “appropriate and necessary” to regulate air pollution emissions from power plants.  Under the George W. Bush administration, the EPA reversed its decision and deemed power plants unregulated.  The George W. Bush-era EPA instead proposed a cap-and-trade system for mercury emissions.  Emissions were not restricted, but polluters would pay a fee that was given to companies whose power plants polluted less (“Regulatory Actions”).

Though the EPA has moved away from George W. Bush-like environmental policies, there is still a potential for MATS to be gutted and for power plants to be granted exemptions from the rule.  Under MATS, power plant operators have three years to comply with the new standards, but they may be granted additional time to install the necessary technologies if they are able to show a “valid need.”  It should be interesting to see how many power plants comply within the first three years as the law states and how many are given extra time due to various “valid needs” (Hudson).


“Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) for Power Plants.” EPA. Environmental Protection Agency, 10 Apr. 2012. Web. 15 May 2012. <;.

Hudson, William. “Protecting Babies from Neurotoxins –” CNN. Cable News Network, 03 Jan. 2012. Web. 15 May 2012. <;.

“Regulatory Actions | Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) for Power Plants.” EPA. Environmental Protection Agency, 10 Apr. 2012. Web. 15 May 2012. <;.

2 replies on “Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) Series Part I: Overview”

Thanks for the post. It seems that few North Americans realize that air-borne mercury has contaminated virtually every lake on the continent to the point that states have had to issue fish consumption warnings. Check your state’s department of fish and game, department of natural resources, or similar agencies for detailed information.


Thanks so much for reading! I agree, everyone, unfortunately, should research any fish before eating.


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