CLIFTON HILL — As the Environmental Protection Agency accelerates efforts to undo Obama-era regulations, Administrator Scott Pruitt is already celebrating his efforts to loosen limits on power plant emission limits and the flow of pollutants into surface water.
“The war on coal is over, the war on fossil fuels is over and we have achieved victory,” Pruitt said during a visit Thursday to the Thomas Hill Energy Center. The coal-fired power plant, operated by Associated Electric Cooperative Inc., supplies electricity to rural cooperatives that have more than 2 million members.
The event drew about 250 people, including Republican politicians, utility representatives and power plant employees. They praised Pruitt’s record opposing the EPA as attorney general of Oklahoma and his actions to roll back the Clean Power Plan, which is designed to limit carbon dioxide pollution, and the Waters of the United States rule, which covered releases into small streams and waterways that connect to major lakes and rivers.
“We have now someone at the EPA who has both fought the EPA and I believe is willing to make a new commitment for the EPA to be doing what the EPA is supposed to do,” U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said as he introduced Pruitt.
Pruitt repeatedly sued President Barack Obama’s administration over environmental rules. In his speech, Pruitt noted executive orders from President Donald Trump intended to reverse those decisions.
He did not mention the latest action from Tuesday, when the EPA asked the Washington, D.C., appeals court to delay its review of regulations already in place that limit emissions of mercury and other toxic elements from power plants. The court is considering whether the EPA has met a requirement that it show the costs and benefits of the rule.
Pruitt did not mention the move and did not take questions from reporters at the event.
The Thomas Hill power plant emitted 508 pounds of mercury in 2015, the latest year available on the EPA’s database of toxic discharges. That was the largest amount in more than a decade but the utility stated in its annual report that 2016 will show a significant reduction in mercury due to a $35 million investment to meet the new regulations.
Nationally, the EPA has estimated that implementing the rule would cost utilities $9.6 billion, produce between $37 billion and $90 billion in benefits and prevent up to 11,000 premature deaths and 130,000 asthma cases annually. Mercury also is associated with impaired brain function.
“People always want to talk about emissions but they don’t always want to talk about the cost,” Associated Electric CEO David Tudor said in an interview. “The reality is that rural America is not rich. Our farmers and ranchers want low-cost, reliable, affordable electricity so, if it is up to them, they don’t care about mercury.”
The rules for mercury and other toxic pollutants took effect last year. Blunt, speaking to reporters, said he was unsure why Pruitt wants to delay the court hearing on the rule but he agrees with how Pruitt is doing his job.
The rules that have been most controversial, concerning water pollution and carbon dioxide emissions, were both bad for Missouri, Blunt said.
“You would be hard to find two things that were more damaging to the economy of our state and the rural areas particularly,” he said.
The Thomas Hill plant is in the Fourth Congressional District, and U.S Rep. Vicky Hartzler, R-Harrisonville, said she, too, is pleased with Pruitt and thinks current emission standards are good enough.
“I think we should celebrate what we have today, which is clean air, and a lot of the emissions have been reduced over the years,” she said.
The Thomas Hill power plant has three generating units, with the oldest completed in 1966. It sits beside a lake created to provide water for boilers and on land that was once a strip mine.
The mine has been closed and reclaimed and the power plant has burned low-sulfur coal since 1994 to reduce emissions. The regulations intended to control emissions further threatened the future of the Thomas Hill plant, associated vice president Barry Hart said.
The plant employs 223 people who earn an average of $35 per hour, Hart said. The monthly payroll is $1.1 million, he said. In the election, rural Missouri voters overwhelmingly supported Trump and that means the plant will remain in operation, he said.
“Rural Missouri wants change — it wants things to go back to the way things used to be,” Hart said.