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Sustainable Energy and Economic Development

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Mercury Protections

FACTSHEET: EPA’s Weakening of the Clean Air Act’s Mercury Protections

This year, the Bush administration is making a decision that could have an enormous impact on the health of women and children. After years of delay, under an agreement with public health advocates, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) must establish by the end of 2004 rules to reduce mercury emitted by power plants, the largest uncontrolled industrial source of this toxic air pollutant.

Mercury is a highly toxic chemical with effects on the central nervous system comparable to those of lead. Exposure to mercury, particularly in the womb, can cause severe neurological and developmental problems that include poor attention span and delayed language development, impaired memory and vision, problems processing information, and impaired fine motor coordination.

Mercury exposure is widespread. Across the country, more than 12 million acres of lakes and 400,000 miles of rivers are under advisory, warning people to avoid or limit fish consumption due to mercury pollution. Despite these warnings, a recent study by Centers for Disease Control estimates that 1 in 12 women of childbearing age in the U.S. has unsafe levels of mercury in her blood. This means that approximately 300,000 children are born each year with a heightened risk for neurological and developmental problems related to mercury exposure. Even more recently, EPA estimated that as many as 630,000 children may be born each year with unhealthy levels of mercury in their blood.

Power plants are the largest industrial source of mercury in our environment. Mercury emitted from power plant stacks falls in rain and snow onto the land and into water bodies around the power plants. Amazingly, power plants are the only major mercury polluters yet to be regulated under federal clean air standards. Thus, in large part, our nation’s mercury problem is due to the fact that while other sources must meet strict emission limits, power plants continue to spew unlimited quantities of mercury into our air, where the rain and snow wash it into our rivers, lakes and oceans, and, ultimately, into our food chain.

Public health demands that we act on mercury to reduce children’s exposure to mercury as we have done to reduce children’s exposure to lead in the environment. Unfortunately, the Bush administration has taken several steps in the wrong direction to address mercury pollution. Instead of protecting mothers and children from exposure to mercury, EPA’s regulatory proposals protect electric utilities by setting targets so weak that the industry will be allowed to continue polluting without using state-of-the-art mercury controls.

What the mercury standard should be: The current law requires (under Section 112 of the Clean Air Act) that air toxics such as mercury be controlled to emission levels achievable by "maximum achievable control technologies" (MACT). Such controls must be in place no later than three years after the regulations are finalized.

  • Each and every newpower plant is required, at the very least, to limit mercury emissions to the lowest level achieved by a similar facility by 2008. Existingsources’ emissions rates must be set at a level based on the average of the best performing 12 percent of existing sources.
  • Two years ago, EPA’s own scientists said the existing fleet of power plants could achieve a 90 percent reduction in mercury emissions using existing control technologies. This means we can reduce mercury emissions from power plants from 48 tons annually to roughly 5 tons per year by 2008.

What EPA is proposing: EPA has put forward several regulatory options in its proposal. All of them achieve significantly lower public health benefits than the Clean Air Act requires. EPA is holding public hearings on February 25 and 26 and taking written comments until March 30, 2004. The Agency has said it will select one of the proposed options by the end of 2004.

One option, EPA’s preferred, rescinds its prior determination that power plants must be regulated according to MACT levels and instead proposes a far weaker standard. In effect, this approach treats power plants’ mercury emissions as non-hazardous air pollution.

  • Under Section 112 of the Clean Air Act, specifically listed toxic substances must be controlled more strictly than conventional air pollutants like soot and smog. EPA is proposing to rescind its determination that power plants’ toxic air pollution must be regulated under Section 112.
  • Under this approach, instead of using the best technology available to limit mercury emissions by 2008, existing power plants will be able to emit six to seven times more mercury between 2010 and 2018 and three times more mercury after 2018.
  • Under this approach, power plants would no longer be required to limit emissions to a degree that reflects the maximum pollution controls at each and every plant. Instead, some plants would be able to avoid making reductions by buying credits from other plants. This practice significantly increases the likelihood and severity of "hot spots," or communities where mercury deposition is more prevalent.

The other two EPA proposed options continue to treat mercury from power plants as an air toxic, but allow mercury pollution to continue at levels that are far higher than required by the Clean Air Act to protect public health.

  • By employing a series of data manipulations, EPA’s other two options require the regulation of power plants under Section 112 but still allow more than six to seven times more mercury than the levels required and achievable by the Clean Air Act.
    • One option not only allows mercury at levels that are six to seven times greater than what is achievable for the next decade, but also allows trading of pollution credits.


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