Analysis: EPA mercury curbs assailed

By AL SWANSON, UPI Urban Affairs Correspondent  |  March 16, 2005 at 6:06 PM
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CHICAGO, March 16 (UPI) -- Pennsylvania and New Jersey are inviting more states to join a court battle to overturn new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rules intended to reduce mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants.

Several environmental groups critical of final regulations unveiled in Washington this week likely will join anticipated legal challenges.

EPA officials say the final rule, which came after 600,000 comments over seven years, will reduce mercury emissions from power plants 70 percent by 2018. Critics said the first-ever rule regulating mercury spewed from U.S. coal-fired power plants actually would slow reducing the toxic metal in the environment.

Mercury is released when coal is burned and can cause birth defects and developmental disabilities, particularly in fetuses, infants and young children. About 20 percent settles within 100 miles of the plant, polluting water and entering the food chain. Airborne mercury can travel thousands of miles and is a global problem.

The rule allows cleaner coal-burning plants to sell or trade pollution credits to dirtier power plants out of state. Environmental groups say that could create mercury hotspots in California, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, New Hampshire and New Jersey and other areas of the country.

The federal government and 45 states have mercury advisories for fish consumption.

Petitions to review the mercury final rule must be filed in federal court within 60 days after it is printed in the Federal Register.

"There's always someone who says you could go farther," said Jeff Holmstead, assistant administrator for the U.S. EPA's Office of Air and Radiation. "The United States is now the first and only country in the world to regulate mercury from power plants."

Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley said any rule to reduce mercury output by power plants was long overdue but that trading of mercury-pollution credits could create unintended mercury "hotspots" that could ultimately make mercury pollution in the Great Lakes worse.

Republican New York Gov. George Pataki criticized the cap-and-trade approach in a letter to the EPA.

Sens. James Jeffords, I-Vt., Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., have called for congressional hearings on the EPA mercury-emissions trading plan.

"We should be acting quickly and responsibly to reduce toxic mercury pollution from power plants, but the Bush administration's regulations will drag out mercury cleanup for decades, putting several more generations of children at risk of mercury's dangerous health effects," said House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

The final rule reduces mercury emissions by 38 tons, or 21 percent, in 2010, based on 1999 levels. Mercury emissions from the nation's 1,300 coal-fired power plants would fall to 31.3 tons by 2010, 27.9 tons by 2015, 24.3 tons by 2020 and to 15 tons by 2026.

New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Iowa already have stricter standards.

New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Bradley Campbell said the rule "largely enforces the status quo."

"I can't see any evidence that scientific information was taken into account. I can't see that the testimony of state leaders was taken into account. I can't see that testimony of religious leaders was taken into account in this rule," said Pennsylvania Environmental Protection Secretary Kathleen A. McGinty.

She said the EPA rule undermined technology requirements mandated by the federal Clean Air Act, would do little to curb pollution upwind of Pennsylvania and would penalize the state's coal industry. The emissions standards are tougher for the bituminous coal found in Pennsylvania and other eastern states. Hard coal mined in western states burns cleaner with less sulfur and mercury emitted.

"The EPA's plan is bad public policy. It is bad for public health and bad for Pennsylvania's economy," said McGinty, former chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality. "If EPA won't act willingly then Pennsylvania and others will move ahead to make sure EPA puts in place a plan that is more protective of citizens."

Under a free-market, economics-based cap-and-trade system, the EPA sets a limit on total pollution. Power plants equipped with technology to reduce smokestack emissions can generate credits and sell those credits to less-modern power plants.

"The cap-and-trade program hurts the communities surrounding the power plants that choose to spend money on pollution credits of making real mercury reductions," said Verena Owen, clean air chair for the Sierra Club's Illinois Chapter.

The California-based Electric Power Research Institute estimates utilities will have to spend $2 billion over the next 13 years to meet the federal EPA mercury standards. EPA estimated industry anti-pollution costs to curb mercury at $750 million a year by 2020.

Scott Segal, director of the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, a coalition of power-generating industry companies, said the cap-and-trade approach was well designed and "remains the most appropriate response to dealing with mercury emissions from power plants."

ERCC said no existing technology can achieve the reduction levels in the Clean Air Mercury Rule, let alone the 90-percent reductions called for by environmental activists.

"Based on the most recent indicators, EPA found that since 1970, total national emissions of the six most common air emissions have been reduced 48 percent," ERCC said in a release. "This improvement in air quality has occurred while the Gross Domestic Product increased 164 percent and energy consumption increased 42 percent. Electrical power production results in about one-third of man-made mercury emissions in the U.S., or approximately 1 percent of global emissions. Existing control technologies for sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and particulate matter reduce power plant mercury emissions by roughly 40 percent."

During hearings in 2001 the EPA estimated 80 percent to 90 percent reductions in mercury could be achieved using existing technologies like selective catalytic reduction, low-NOx burners, activated carbon injection and scrubbers currently used to incinerate medical waste and municipal garbage.

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