updated 4/2/2004 9:44:49 AM ET 2004-04-02T14:44:49

The Bush administration’s plan for reducing mercury emissions from power plants came under criticism on two fronts Thursday as nearly half of the Senate and 10 states urged the Environmental Protection Agency to propose stronger requirements.

The agency’s administrator, Mike Leavitt, has promised to re-examine a plan that envisions a 70 percent cut in mercury emissions from coal-burning power plants by 2018.

The plan has been attacked because of the time given to utilities to reduce emissions and because the EPA would let some companies buy pollution credits from utilities rather than substantially cutting contaminants.

Mercury, a toxic substance, can cause neurological and developmental problems, especially in children. Once in the environment, it can remain an active toxin for thousands of years.

Seven Republicans join Democrats
The government’s mercury proposals “fall far short of what the law requires and they fail to protect the health of our children and our environment,” the senators said in a letter Thursday to Leavitt. The group of 45 lawmakers included seven Republicans.

The senators urged Leavitt to scrap the regulation and “take prompt and effective action to clean up mercury pollution from power plants.”

Attorneys general from 10 states, mostly in the Northeast, said the EPA proposal does “not meet the minimum requirements” of the federal Clean Air Act and should be withdrawn immediately. They said the Clean Air Act requires each plant to make stringent reductions.

The EPA, in a statement responding to the letters, reaffirmed that Leavitt considers mercury exposure a serious health issue and is determined to complete a final regulation by year’s end that will cut those emissions from power plants by 70 percent.

The statement said Leavitt has asked for additional analysis to ensure that cutting mercury emissions is done “in the most efficient and effective way possible” given the available technology.

Power plants account for 48 tons of mercury a year; these emissions are unregulated.

Clinton-era proposal was harsher
The Clinton administration had offered a proposal that envisioned cutting mercury emissions by 90 percent by 2008. That would have required utilities to install the best available technology and would have prohibited the trading of pollution credits.

The Bush administration scrapped that approach and proposed regulating mercury much as smog-causing nitrogen oxide, acid rain from sulfur dioxide and other pollutants. It also gave utilities much longer to comply and reduced the target to 70 percent.

Utilities have argued that they cannot meet the 90 percent reduction requirement or the 2008 deadline.

But the senators’ letter said the EPA “did not fully analyze the range of controls” recommended by state officials, the utility industry, environmentalists and advisory groups.

The letter was signed by 38 Democrats as well as seven Republicans: Sens. John McCain of Arizona, Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine, Judd Gregg and John Sununu of New Hampshire, Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee.

The states urging a new approach were Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and New Mexico.

Northeast concern
Officials in the Northeast have been concerned about mercury contamination of the region’s lakes and streams. The pollution often drifts from coal-burning power plants hundreds of miles away.

New estimates show that 40 percent of lakes in New Hampshire and Vermont contain mercury levels in excess of the least stringent standards, the state officials wrote Leavitt.

Mercury from power plants settle in waterways and eventually accumulates in fish. The Food and Drug Administration recently warned that high levels of mercury in some fish, including albacore tuna, can pose a hazard for children and for women who are pregnant or nursing.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has estimated that one in eight women have mercury concentrations in their bodies that exceed safe levels. EPA scientists recently reported that 630,000 babies born a year might have been exposed as fetuses to unsafe levels of mercury.

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