Phillip J. Redman  /  USGS
Coal-fired power plants like this one are major emitters of mercury, which enters the food chain via the air and water.
updated 3/15/2005 3:03:26 PM ET 2005-03-15T20:03:26

The Bush administration on Tuesday issued the nation’s first regulations on mercury pollution from coal-burning power plants, relying on a market trading system that gives companies 15 years to reduce it nearly by half.

But even as the regulations were being announced, they faced immediate political and legal opposition from senators, environmentalists and public health advocates. Opponents said EPA’s approach, favored by the utility industry, fails to do all the Clean Air Act requires by not making deeper cuts nationwide.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s regulations are aimed at reducing levels of a toxic chemical that can severely damage nervous systems, especially in fetuses and children. They result from a lawsuit brought by an environmental group 13 years ago.

Coal-burning power plants in the United States now emit an estimated 48 tons a year of mercury, and the EPA rule aims to reduce that to 31.3 tons in 2010, 27.9 tons in 2015, and 24.3 tons in 2020.

Mercury concentrations accumulate in fish and work up the food chain, which has prompted most states to issue fish consumption advisories. Forty percent of mercury emissions come from the smokestacks of more than 450 coal-burning power plants, but those emissions have never been regulated as a pollutant.

The agency’s “cap-and-trade” approach, setting a cap on how much pollution should be allowed and then letting companies trade within those limits, was favored by industry. That lets some companies increase pollution while others turn a profit by selling unused pollution allowances.

Voices against
Sens. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, and Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said they were disappointed with the new rule. Snowe called it “woefully inadequate and profoundly disappointing” that it would not reduce and could even increase local mercury concentrations. Boxer said she was “appalled that the Bush administration is ignoring the clear science.”

Environmental and public health groups — including the Natural Resources Defense Council, whose 1992 lawsuit and subsequent court agreements prompted the mercury regulations — favored a stricter approach requiring each plant to install new controls.

The group said the agency still hadn’t met its obligations under the Clean Air Act. “It’s the do-nothing approach to mercury,” said John Walke, NRDC’s director of clean air programs. “They get a holiday basically ... that requires them to reduce mercury no more than would incidentally be achieved from their smog and soot cuts.”

The two national associations of state and local air pollution control officials also criticized the rule.

“The public looks to our nation’s Environmental Protection Agency to protect their health and environment from harmful pollutants. Today, with this rule, our EPA has broken faith with the public,” Bill Becker, speaking for both groups, said in a statement. 

One of those state officials, Bill O'Sullivan from New Jersey's EPA, agreed. “The emission limits in this rule are not nearly stringent enough and do not even reflect the level of control capable by currently available technology,” he said in the statement. “Further this rule inappropriately allows trading of mercury, which is a powerful neurotoxin, rather than requiring state-of-the-art control at each facility. Lack of such control on some plants could perpetuate mercury ‘hot spots’ – or pockets of high mercury levels."

Voices in favor
Dan Riedinger, spokesman for the power industry’s Edison Electric Institute, said a cap and trade approach is preferable to setting a single deadline for making technology improvements that, once met, gives “little or no incentive” to cut more pollution.

Scott Segal, director of the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, a group of power companies, said using market forces to control pollution would result in significant cuts while providing stability for consumers and electricity producers.

“The federal government is wise to avoid overly inflexible mercury control programs,” Segal said. “If regulations force utilities to shift from coal to natural gas, the result is predictable” — higher electricity prices.

Utilities could also meet the EPA’s targets by switching to cleaner-burning coal or natural gas.

First five years
Power plants at first will not have to do anything more than what is required to reduce two other pollutants under a rule EPA issued last week to address air pollution that travels long distances.

That’s because the mercury rule “relies completely” during first five years on incidental cuts from scrubbers to reduce fine particles from sulfur dioxide and from chemical processes to reduce smog-forming ground-level ozone from nitrogen oxides, EPA spokeswoman Cynthia Bergman said.

The agency believes significant reductions in mercury will result as a “co-benefit” when plants install new equipment to reduce sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, she said.

The rule for utilities follows EPA rules in the late 1990s that regulate mercury dumped in water and air from municipal waste and medical waste incinerators.

“While this rule is protective of public health, most of the mercury that creates health risks for Americans comes from fish contaminated from sources that we can’t control,” Bergman said Monday. “This is a global problem.”

In the meantime, she said, pregnant women and women of childbearing age should heed government warnings to limit fish intake.

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