updated 11/15/2005 12:05:19 PM ET 2005-11-15T17:05:19

State and local air regulators unhappy with the Bush administration’s approach to mercury pollution offered a competing plan Monday that would require coal-burning power plants to cut mercury emissions more deeply and more quickly and would raise home electric bills throughout the East and Midwest about a dollar a month.

Their plan would require utilities to reduce their combined 48 tons a year of mercury pollution by 80 percent by 2008, and by 90 percent to 95 percent by 2012. It relies on state-of-the-art technologies such as injectors that feed activated carbon dust into the exhaust vents. The carbon attracts mercury particles, which are filtered out.

Forty percent of all U.S. mercury pollution comes from coal-fired power plants. Mercury, a neurotoxin, concentrates in fish and poses the greatest risk of nerve damage to pregnant women, women of childbearing age and young children.

A new rule adopted by the Environmental Protection Agency in March set a nationwide cap on mercury pollution and put a ceiling on allowable pollution for each state starting in 2010.

The agency said it aimed to cut mercury pollution by 70 percent by 2018, but lets individual plants avoid cleanups by buying pollution allowances from plants well under the allowable limits. As a result, the EPA estimated, utilities could realistically be expected to cut their mercury pollution in half by 2020, down to 24.3 tons. Deeper cuts would take a few more years. The EPA estimated its plan would cost utilities and users of electricity $750 million a year by 2020.

The twin trade groups for the State and Territorial Air Pollution Program Administrators and the Association of Local Air Pollution Control Officials said their “model rule” for states to adopt would add $1 a month to the average household’s utility bills. But they said they lacked a national cost estimate for their plan.

States can adopt their own plans for reducing mercury pollution as long as they surpass federal standards.

“The public is willing to pay the cost of a lunch at McDonald’s in order to ensure that the fish they eat is free from mercury,” said Bill Becker, the groups’ executive director.

“We don’t need Congress’ permission. We don’t need EPA’s permission. These are tools states and localities can use,” Becker said. “Given the amount of extreme disappointment and concern with EPA’s rule, the states are telling us they’re very confident they will adopt many of these provisions.”

The Bush administration has repeatedly argued that requiring all or most plants to install the latest technology controls is too costly.

“EPA believes its cap-and-trade rule is the best approach to protect public health by reducing mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants while maintaining fuel diversity and energy security,” agency spokeswoman Eryn Witcher said Monday.

Witcher said the air regulators’ model rule “could potentially shift large segments of the nation’s generating capacity from coal to natural gas if it were adopted in a significant number of key electricity-generating states. Such a shift could result in increased natural gas prices to consumers due to supply shortages.”

David Foerter, executive director of the Institute for Clean Air Companies, whose members make the controls and monitoring systems, said the air regulators’ plan “better reflects the capabilities of mercury control technologies” than the EPA’s approach.

John Paul, president of the local regulators’ trade group and supervisor of a Dayton, Ohio-based regional air pollution control agency, said the EPA had ignored an expert panel’s conclusion that tougher controls were needed.

Scott Segal, director of the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, which represents electric utilities, said the air regulators’ plan was unwise.

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