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New mercury rules to start slowly

Anton Caputo
San Antonio Express-News Staff Writer

The federal government is expected to finalize rules as soon as today that would reduce power plant mercury emissions by almost 70 percent by 2018, but would do little to curb levels in Texas before then.

The Environmental Protection Agency rules, the first to federally regulate mercury produced by coal-fired power plants, use a cap-and-trade approach favored by the Bush administration in regulating other pollution. This would let dirtier utilities buy pollution credits from cleaner utilities.

That approach has raised the ire of many environmental groups worried about the new market creating "mercury hotspots." Some of the groups have said they likely will challenge the new regulations in court.

"EPA's rules will allow polluters to buy their way out of clean-up through a trading scheme," said Karen Hadden, head of the Sustainable Energy and Economic Development Coalition in Austin. "Texas is already the nation's mercury hotspot, and we need cleanup to protect our children, not giveaways to utilities."

Mercury, a neurotoxin especially dangerous to fetuses and small children, can fall into water and be absorbed by fish that are later eaten by humans.

A leaked copy of the new rules shows the limit for mercury from Texas power plants at 9,314 pounds from 2010 through 2017. That's more than twice the amount allowed any other state.

It's also roughly the amount the state's power plants have produced in recent years: 9,815 pounds in 2002, 8,992 pounds in 2001 and 9,302 pounds in 2000.

The limit will drop significantly in 2018 to 3,676 pounds of mercury allowed in Texas.

Scott Segal, director of the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, supported the plan, saying that the cap-and-trade program creates economic incentive for power companies to control mercury while remaining realistic about the available technology.

Joe Fulton, City Public Service's director of research and environmental management, doesn't believe the regulations will affect any local power plants or the new plant that the utility is proposing to build at Calaveras Lake.

He said new mercury control equipment being installed at the current plants will allow CPS to meet the 2010 and 2018 requirements.

"My initial reaction is that with the $330 million environmental improvements program being undertaken by CPS, we will have no significant problem complying with this rule," he said.

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