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Matt Rourke, Associated Press
Acting Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler walks from the podium after a news conference in Philadelphia, on Thursday, Feb. 14, 2019. Under strong pressure from Congress, the Environmental Protection Agency said Thursday that it will move ahead this year with a process that could lead to setting a safety threshold for a group of highly toxic chemicals in drinking water.

SALT LAKE CITY — Anti-abortion Christians are among those protesting an Environmental Protection Agency proposal that would limit consideration of health benefits in regulating mercury and other toxic emissions from industrial sources like coal-burning power plants.

"Today, over 145,000 pro-life Christians from across the country — including over 94,000 from states that voted for President Trump — are calling on the Trump administration to stop its efforts to dismantle protections that defend children in the womb from mercury pollution," the Rev. Mitchell C. Hescox, president of The Evangelical Environmental Network, wrote for The Hill. "Dismantling these protections is wrong, and it does not square with our faith or the faith of millions of pro-life Americans."

Wednesday was the last day for public comment on changes to the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, which the Trump administration proposed in December. The changes would overturn federal rules imposed by the Obama administration, which the Environmental Protection Agency now says are too costly to justify.

"Children in the womb are uniquely vulnerable to mercury — a potent neurotoxin — because a protective shield around the developing child’s brain, called the 'blood-brain barrier,' is not fully formed until the first year of life," wrote the Rev. Hescox. "Mercury passes across the mother’s placenta, enters the bloodstream of her child and then into the developing child’s brain, causing brain damage, developmental disabilities, neurological disorders, lowered intelligence and learning difficulties."

Children exposed to mercury during a mother’s pregnancy can experience lifelong IQ and motor function deficits, according to a 2017 study.

The EPA calculated it would cost industry between $7.4 billion and $9.6 billion annually to install the necessary technology to cut mercury, while the health benefits ranged from $4 million to $6 million, The New York Times reported.

The Obama administration, however, had also factored in "co-benefits" from reduced particulate matter linked to mercury emissions, including reduced premature deaths, sick days and hospital visits, adding an additional $80 billion in health benefits a year, according to the article.

Hal Quinn, president of the National Mining Association, praised the EPA's proposed change, calling the mercury limits "perhaps the largest regulatory accounting fraud perpetrated on American consumers," the Times reported.

But anti-abortion advocates are less concerned with monetary costs and more concerned with costs to lives.

Patrick Semansky, Associated Press
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler testifies before the House Environment and Climate Change Subcommittee during a hearing on President Donald Trump's budget request for fiscal year 2020, Tuesday, April 9, 2019, on Capitol Hill in Washington.

"As an evangelical Christian, I believe that all human life is sacred; that each person conceived is of equal and innate value, and that all human life is worthy of protection," the Rev. Jeremy Summers, chairman of the board of The Evangelical Environmental Network, wrote for The State. "Our commitment to Jesus Christ compels us to do all we can to protect unborn children from mercury poisoning. It is a pro-life concern, plain and simple."

Melody Zhang, a member of Young Evangelicals for Climate Action and the Climate Justice Coordinator for Sojourners, a Christian advocacy organization, testified before the EPA on March 15. She wrote that on the morning of the hearing, she gathered together with more than 30 other faith leaders "in prayer and petitioning against the rollback of the Mercury Rule."

"We are motivated by our Christian faith to act as responsible stewards of creation and to protect the abundance and diversity of the fullness of life by advocating for alternatives to fossil fuel energy which are more equitable and just, for the sake of the most vulnerable among us," Zhang testified before the EPA. "Any amount of exposure to mercury is a real threat to the development of any child in utero and early in life."

There are no known safe levels of mercury. Coal-fired electric utilities are America’s largest source of mercury, according to a 2018 study. When emitted, the mercury deposits in bodies of water, is consumed by fish and enters the human food supply.

" Any amount of exposure to mercury is a real threat to the development of any child in utero and early in life. "
Melody Zhang, a member of Young Evangelicals for Climate Action and the Climate Justice Coordinator for Sojourners

The Economist reported that coal plants have spent billions in compliance costs and mercury emissions have fallen by nearly 90 percent since the regulation was implemented in 2011. As a result, 11,000 deaths have been prevented each year, according to Harold P. Wimmer, president and CEO of the American Lung Association.

"The rollback to MATS has galvanized people of different faiths to work together," Ricardo Simmons wrote for Daily Camera.

On March 20, 19 national religious organizations joined together in sending a letter to EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler opposing the change, according to the Albany Times Union. Signatories included the Mormon Environmental Stewardship Alliance, Creation Justice Ministries, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, The Friends Committee on National Legislation, National Baptist Convention USA, Inc., Union for Reform Judaism, United Church of Christ, Justice and Witness Ministries; and the United Methodist Church – General Board of Church and Society.

Patrick Semansky, Associated Press
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler testifies before the House Environment and Climate Change Subcommittee during a hearing on President Donald Trump's budget request for fiscal year 2020, Tuesday, April 9, 2019, on Capitol Hill in Washington.
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They wrote, “Limiting the benefits attributed to curbing mercury pollution in its cost-benefit analysis not only shortchanges the health of vulnerable populations but puts the health and well-being of all communities at risk.”

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops also sent a letter to the EPA stating, “A human life — at any stage of development — has inestimable value because all persons are created in the image of God. Given the threat that these particular pollutants pose to unborn children, some of the most vulnerable among us, these principles must be upheld with a special importance.”