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New mercury limits raise toxic debate, especially here

The EPA says the rule will help pregnant women, but foes contend it favors industry

March 16, 2005

From Staff And Wire Reports
Houston Chronicle

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

The rule could have its biggest impact in Texas, where 19 coal-fired power plants release more mercury into the air than any other state.

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.

"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.

Critics said the arrangement fell far short of what was needed, and they promised to fight it.

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.

In 2001, Texas power plants emitted 8,991 pounds of mercury - accounting for almost 10 percent of the mercury released into the atmosphere nationwide that year. Last year, those Texas utilities released 9,815 pounds of mercury, according to federal emissions data.

The fifth-largest mercury emitter in Texas is the W.A. Parish Electric Generating Station in Fort Bend County.

Cap-and-trade approach 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. 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. "We will fight it in the courts, we will fight it here in Congress, and we will fight it in statehouses across the nation."

Texas Genco, the owner of the Fort Bend County plant, supports the cap-and-trade approach, which allows each company to determine on a plant-by-plant basis whether to invest in pollution controls, or purchase credits from other companies whose plants have reduced mercury pollution.

"We favor the cap-and-trade approach to mercury reduction because we believe it will allow industry the flexibility to develop technologies that meet the requirements of the rule," said Don McArthur, president of environmental affairs for the company.

The new 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 for reducing mercury. They said that would avoid "hot spots" where there could be local concentrations of 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."

Rules called a 'status quo' Environmentalists disagree.

Karen Hadden, executive director of the Sustainable Energy and Economic Development (SEED) Coalition, said the initial 2010 cap for Texas is 9,400 pounds - a level that in most years is already met.

"How can anyone claim this is a reduction of toxic mercury pollution in Texas?" asked Hadden. "It's hard to call that a reduction, this is a status quo."

Two Texas legislators want emissions of mercury in the state slashed sooner. Many coal-fired power plants burn lignite, a lower grade of coal mined locally that can be more polluting.

Senator Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, and Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, have filed bills that reduce mercury from Texas coal-burning power plants to 10 percent of 2002 levels by 2008, as the Clean Air Act requires.

"Reducing the mercury emissions that utility companies emit will help provide clean air for all Texans, while helping utility companies continue to be industry leaders," Sen. Zaffirini said.

Chronicle reporter Dina Cappiello contributed to this story.

dina.cappiello@chron.com

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