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EPA Issues Rules to Cut Mercury Pollution

Mar 16, 2005

By JOHN HEILPRIN
Associated Press Writer
Dallas Morning News Online

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Bush administration on Tuesday ordered power plants to cut mercury pollution from smokestacks by nearly half within 15 years but left an out for the worst polluters.

The Environmental Protection Agency said the cuts would help protect pregnant women, women of childbearing age and young children from a toxic metal that causes nerve damage. Critics said the arrangement fell far short of what was needed, and they promised to fight it.

"The United States is the first nation to take a leadership role in addressing the problem of mercury from power plants," said Jeffrey Holmstead, EPA's top air pollution official.

The nation's 600 coal-burning power plants release 48 tons of mercury pollution a year. That is expected to decrease to 31.3 tons in 2010, 27.9 tons in 2015 and 24.3 tons in 2020.

Forty percent of mercury emissions come from power plants, but those emissions have never been regulated as a pollutant. EPA regulates mercury in water and from municipal waste and medical waste incinerators.

EPA faced immediate political and legal opposition. Senators, environmentalists and public health advocates said EPA failed to do all the Clean Air Act requires.

They said EPA favored industry by setting a nationwide cap on allowable pollution and then allocating a specific amount to each state - and, in a few cases, Indian tribes that own power plants. The states then set limits on specific plants. Those that exceed the limit could buy pollution "credits" from plants emitting less pollution than they're allowed.

The cap-and-trade approach kicks in at 2010. Until then, utilities don't have to do anything specifically to control mercury. Instead, they must follow another regulation to reduce two other pollutants - which EPA says will also help control mercury.

"At the behest of industry, the Bush administration has just endorsed the continued poisoning of children and pregnant women with mercury," said Sen. James Jeffords, I-Vt., siding with several Democratic and Republican senators. "We will fight it in the courts, we will fight it here in Congress, and we will fight it in statehouses across the nation."

The regulations were issued because of a court agreement with the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group that sued EPA 13 years ago to regulate hazardous air pollutants from power plants.

NRDC and other administration critics said EPA should have used the Clean Air Act to require individual power plants to buy the most effective technology on the market for reducing mercury from their stacks. They said that would avoid "hot spots" where there could be local concentrations of mercury pollution.

"We don't think there will be any hot spots, we're quite confident of that," Holmstead said. "A cap-and-trade approach can always get a bigger reduction at a lower cost."

Some states, primarily in the West, would be allocated pollution limits much greater than their actual emissions, environmentalists said, explaining that utilities in those states could sell pollution rights to eastern plants in states most likely to exceed their caps soon.

NRDC's analysis, for example, says California could increase mercury pollution by 841 percent to 82 tons by 2017 and still fall within its cap set by EPA. Utah's pollution could rise by up to 257 percent, to 1,012 tons; New Hampshire, up 241 percent, to 126 tons; Hawaii, up 209 percent, to 48 tons; and Colorado, up 177 percent, to 1,412 tons, according to the analysis.

However, Michael Rossler, a spokesman for the power industry's Edison Electric Institute, said the technology doesn't exist to do what environmentalists want: a 90-percent reduction in mercury pollution from power plants within three years.

Rossler said cap-and-trade would bring about greater reductions eventually, minimize passing costs on to consumers in their electric bills and help prevent companies switching from coal to more expensive but cleaner-burning natural gas.

EPA officials said the regulations won't solve the problem since most Americans get mercury by eating fish from overseas. They advise people to heed government warnings to limit fish intake. Mercury concentrations accumulate in fish and work up the food chain.

Michael Bender, director of the Vermont-based Mercury Policy Project, said the Bush administration is "playing a shell game" because it didn't back more than voluntary measures to cut mercury globally at a United Nations meeting in Kenya last month.

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On the Net:
EPA: http://www.epa.gov/mercury
NRDC: http://www.nrdc.org

2005 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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