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11 states sue over U.S. mercury trading plan

Eleven states sued the Bush administration Wednesday to block new rules allowing coal-burning utilities to trade rights to emit toxic mercury.
/ Source: Reuters

Eleven states sued the Bush administration Wednesday to block new rules allowing coal-burning utilities to trade rights to emit toxic mercury, adding to other lawsuits challenging the regulations.

The core issue in all the lawsuits is whether the Environmental Protection Agency went far enough with its March regulations to protect public health. Mercury contaminates fish and water and has been linked to neurological disorders in young children.

The EPA regulations rolled out in March ordered U.S. utilities to cut their emissions of mercury by 70 percent by 2018 through a cap-and-trade system.

On Wednesday, New Jersey and 10 other states filed a federal lawsuit in Washington, D.C., saying the cap-and-trade rules will lead to “hot spots” with concentrated mercury levels near power plants. That’s because polluting utilities will be able to buy rights to emit the toxin rather than reduce levels outright.

“These laws are deeply flawed and contrary both to science and law,” said New Jersey Attorney General Peter Harvey.

EPA officials have downplayed the possibility of hot spots and the agency said it will “vigorously defend” the rules against court challenges from states and environmental groups.

The other states in the lawsuit are California, Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Mexico, New York, Pennsylvania, Vermont, and Wisconsin.

The nation’s 1,100 coal-burning power plants emit about 48 tons of mercury each year, the largest unregulated U.S. source.

At least 13 states and 12 environmental groups have already sued the Bush administration over a related rule that dropped Clean Air Act requirements for U.S. utilities to use “maximum achievable control technology” to cut mercury emissions. That change set the stage for EPA to allow utilities to start trading emissions rights.

U.S. utilities say their emissions account for only a small portion of the mercury in U.S. waters, and that pollution from municipal and medical waste incinerators will keep levels high even when the rule is fully implemented.

“The bottom line is that the new mercury regulation will require a 70 percent reduction in mercury emissions in a relatively short time frame, and will do so in a way that minimizes costs to consumers,” said a spokesman for the Edison Electric Institute, which represents U.S. utilities.

Environmental groups contend the EPA bowed to pressure from industry and issued pollution regulations requiring shallower cuts over a longer period of time, for which compliance by utilities is cheaper.