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Obama reverses Bush in case over mercury

President Barack Obama is abandoning a Bush administration appeal of an air pollution case, signaling tougher rules to cut mercury emissions from power plants.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The Obama administration signaled Friday that it will seek more stringent controls on mercury pollution from the nation's power plants, abandoning a Bush administration approach that the industry supported.

The Justice Department on Friday submitted papers to the Supreme Court to dismiss the Bush administration's appeal of the rule, which a lower court struck down last year.

Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency said it would begin crafting a new rule limiting mercury emissions from power plants.

The court was expected to decide later this month whether it would take the case. Last year, an appeals court ruled that the Bush plan violated the law by allowing utilities to purchase emission credits instead of actually reducing emissions.

Such a plan would have allowed some power plants to release more mercury pollution than others, creating localized "hot spots" where concentrations are higher, states and environmental groups argued. The law requires all facilities to install the best technology available to curb emissions.

Power plants are the biggest source of mercury, which finds its way into the food supply. It is commonly found in high concentrations in fish. Mercury can damage developing brains of fetuses and very young children.

"It is yet another Bush administration policy they are not going to go forward with," said David Bookbinder, the Sierra Club's chief climate counsel.

Calif. waiver review begins
The EPA also announced Friday that is was starting the review of the Bush administration's decision to deny California and other states the right to control emissions of the gases blamed for global warming for cars.

In a statement, the agency said there were significant issues with the previous administration's denial of the California request that represents a significant departure from the law.

While the administration has signaled it is breaking with its predecessor on several issues, Friday's filing on mercury is the first outright reversal of a legal position taken by the Bush administration at the Supreme Court.

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson told reporters at a green jobs conference in Washington that the Obama administration would draft its own rules under the Clean Air Act to curb mercury emissions.

Jackson — who led the environmental department in New Jersey, one of 17 states that sued the Bush administration in 2006 — said the EPA would likely set limits on the toxic metal from power plants, as required by the law.

"We're better off spending all our resources making rules that will stick instead of fighting the courts on this one," Jackson said.

Representatives of the utility industry, which is still asking the Supreme Court to take up an appeal, said Friday that a new rule would further delay clean up of mercury and cost more than the Bush proposal.

"From an environmental perspective, the thing that is a real shame about all this is had the court left the mercury rule in place we would have had much greater mercury reductions at a lower cost," said Jeff Holmstead, head of the Environmental Strategies Group at the law firm Bracewell & Giuliani, which represents power producers.