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Michigan governor acts to slash mercury

Michigan electric companies are being ordered to slash mercury emissions from coal-burning power plants by 90 percent within nine years.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Michigan electric companies are being ordered to slash mercury emissions from coal-burning power plants by 90 percent within nine years, a step toward cleansing the state's waters of a poison that has prompted fish consumption warnings.

Gov. Jennifer Granholm on Monday said the Department of Environmental Quality would develop a rule requiring utilities to achieve the reductions by 2015.

The state policy goes beyond mercury reduction standards announced by the Bush administration last year. The federal goal is to cut mercury pollution 70 percent nationwide by 2018, although the DEQ says Michigan probably would see little if any reduction until 2025 or later.

Michigan and more than a dozen other states are suing the federal government, saying its standards are too weak. The governors of Illinois, Pennsylvania, Minnesota and Georgia recently have announced plans to seek 90 percent reductions.

"Mercury poses a real and serious health concern for the people of Michigan," Granholm said in a statement. "We are ensuring that future generations can enjoy clean air, and safe water."

The governor, up for re-election this year, pledged during her 2002 campaign to phase out mercury pollution and has drawn criticism from environmentalist groups for not acting sooner. But they praised her plan Monday.

"The public asked to be protected from toxic mercury and the governor delivered," said Jason Barbose, spokesman for the Public Interest Research Group in Michigan.

Industry spokesmen reacted cautiously. Dan Bishop of Consumers Energy said the federal rules were sufficient but the company would cooperate with the DEQ as it develops a state alternative.

"It's important to balance energy policy, environmental protection and economic issues as we go forward," Bishop said.

Coal-fired power plants are by far the biggest source of airborne mercury pollution in Michigan. The DEQ estimates their annual combined emissions at more than 2,500 pounds, or 57 percent of the statewide total.

U.S. power plants generate only 1 percent of worldwide mercury emissions, the Environmental Protection Agency says.

Mercury is spewed into the atmosphere through smokestacks before settling in waterways, where it contaminates the food chain. It accumulates in fish, posing a risk of nerve damage for people eating them _ especially pregnant women, women of childbearing age and young children.

The Department of Community Health has issued guidelines for eating certain fish species caught in Michigan's inland waters and along its Great Lakes coastlines because of mercury, PCBs and other toxins.

In 2003, Granholm convened a work group with representatives of government agencies, industry, environmentalist groups and academics to develop a mercury plan.

The group submitted a report last year that agreed on many points but differed on whether Michigan should exceed the Bush administration standards. Granholm ended up siding with environmentalists, who wanted deeper and quicker emission cuts.

"The federal rule is just too little, too late," DEQ Director Steven Chester said.

Power companies say they are developing mercury reduction technology but may be unable to meet the deadline for the steep cuts the state is demanding.

Chester said the state rule will grant the industry some flexibility.

Unlike the federal plan, it won't let heavily polluting companies avoid cleanups by buying pollution allowances from plants well under the allowable limits.

But it also won't require 90 percent reductions at every power plant. Some plants can fall short — if the company's other plants exceed the standards enough to produce an overall 90 percent average. Companies won't be allowed to achieve that average by concentrating so much pollution at individual plants that they become toxic "hot spots," Chester said.

The Michigan rule will give companies additional time to comply if they install mercury reduction devices that don't perform as expected, or if the cost of meeting the requirements would exceed a certain percentage of their gross revenues.

Granholm will appoint another work group to help the DEQ craft the regulation, Chester said.

Bishop said industry would push for higher electric rates to recoup the costs of developing mercury control technology.

"Utilities should not be put at a competitive disadvantage by the rule," he said.

Environmentalists said cutting mercury emissions should boost the typical residential customer's monthly electric bill by less than $1 a month because rapid innovation is driving down costs.

Cleaner waters will benefit public health and the Michigan economy _ particularly tourism _ in the long run, they said.

"This modest investment now will pay big dividends for future generations, whose mothers will no longer need to consult complicated health advisory tables to see if it's OK to eat a walleye fillet," said Lana Pollack, president of the Michigan Environmental Council.