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Effect of new mercury emissions rule on local air plan unclear

Longview News Journal

March 16, 2005

The Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday imposed its first regulation on power plants' emission of mercury - a toxic pollutant that has made some fish unsafe to eat.

Mercury can cause nerve damage, and reducing it in the environment would give greater protection to children and women of child-bearing years, the EPA's Jeffrey Holmstead said at a news conference.

"The U.S. is the first and only country to regulate mercury emissions from power plants," Holmstead said.

In regulating the largest unchecked source of mercury, EPA chose a market-based approach. Some coal-fired plants will make sharp reductions, and others will buy pollution credits to comply.

The EPA says the rule gives utilities financial incentives to make reductions where they are least expensive. The EPA also says the rule eventually will cut emissions by 70 percent.

Environmental groups and health advocates say the rule is weak and that federal regulators should require every plant to cut mercury emissions as much as possible. They will challenge it in court.

Northeast Texas Air Care co-chairman Bill Stoudt told the Longview News-Journal that it's too soon to tell what the new rule will do to the coalition's five-year clean air plan. NETAC continually updates its plan to prevent a federal designation of non-attainment with the Clean Air Act, which would cost the area some federal transportation money.

"I think we've looked at everything but mercury," the Gregg County judge said Tuesday. "It will certainly have to be on NETAC's agenda to get it on the work plan that we're putting together."

A five-year study by East Texas Baptist University biologist Roy Darville indicated the highest mercury deposits west of the Mississippi are in Northeast Texas waters, particularly Lake O' the Pines and Caddo Lake.

Brian Bond, vice president of external affairs at AEP Southwestern Electric Power Co., told the Longview News-Journal editorial board in February that 80 percent to 85 percent of the mercury deposited in Northeast Texas soil and lakes originated in Asia and Europe.

Bond also said emissions from the company's three Northeast Texas plants, Knox-Lee near Longview, Pirkey near Hallsville and Welsh near Pittsburg, would not increase under a separate proposal pending in Congress. SWEPCO officials back that plan, called the Clean Air Initiative, over the EPA rules.

Bond said the cap-and-trade emissions plan, which also is part of the Clean Air Initiative, will be used in Northeast Texas and that reductions at those plants will vary.

Karen Hadden, executive director of the Sustainable Energy and Economic Development Coalition in Texas, said the new rule sets a standard that's already been met by industry.

Across Texas, Hadden industries already produce less mercury emissions that the rule allows.

"For two of the last three years, we're under that (amount), so that's not a reduction - that's status quo, that's business as usual," said Hadden, whose group staged a protest Tuesday on the Capitol steps in Austin.

She said lawmakers in Austin who joined the demonstration have filed bills requiring more stringent mercury emissions control than the EPA rule.

Hadden also challenged industry claims that most mercury in America comes from smokestacks overseas. Mercury emissions reduction in one part of Florida preceded lowered levels of the poison in Florida fish, she said.

"They say 80 to 85 percent? I want to see their studies, that's all I can say," Hadden said. "They use this argument to say local cleanup doesn't matter, and that's false."

Bond did not respond to telephone or e-mail messages late Tuesday afternoon.

Mercury - like the pollutants that cause soot and smog - rises in smoke when power plants burn fossil fuels, such as coal. Once in the air, vaporized mercury falls back to the ground in rain and is washed into rivers and lakes, where it builds up in fish.

Eating fish is the primary way that people are exposed to mercury, which causes neurological and fetal development problems.

- Staff Writer Glenn Evans contributed to this report.

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