EPA to review mercury emissions plan
Senators say power industry unduly influenced process
Wednesday, May 12, 2004
By JIM MORRIS
The Dallas Morning News
WASHINGTON – Responding to what some senators call "apparent serious irregularities," the Environmental Protection Agency's inspector general will review how the EPA developed a proposal to control mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants.
Seven senators asked for the inquiry last month in a letter saying there is reason to believe the process was unduly influenced by the power industry. An inspector general's office spokesperson confirmed the review Wednesday and said its scope is under discussion.
EPA spokeswoman Cynthia Bergman said, "Any judgment on the rule or the process should be withheld until the rule is finalized. We will be reducing mercury emissions from power plants for the first time, and we want to do it right." The EPA expects to issue a final mercury rule by March 15.
In their April 12 letter, the senators said the EPA used questionable methods to develop its proposal. For example, they said, the plan contains "entire sections of text that appear to have been lifted verbatim" from industry memoranda. It also was edited in a way that makes the science on mercury's health effects seem less certain, the senators said.
Six of the senators are Democrats: Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Barbara Boxer of California, Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, Tom Carper of Delaware and Ron Wyden of Oregon. The seventh is James Jeffords, an independent from Vermont.
John Stanton, vice president of the National Environmental Trust, an advocacy group, said the inspector general's review amounts to "one more indictment of the Bush administration's approach" to mercury pollution.
Ingested in sufficient quantities, mercury – a byproduct of coal combustion – can harm the nervous system and cause learning disabilities, mental retardation and other problems. It's a particular threat to fetuses exposed through their mothers. The EPA estimates that 630,000 of the 4 million babies born each year could be at risk for some type of mercury-related developmental disorder.
Public-health advocates have charged for months that the EPA is feeling pressure to undercut tough control measures spelled out in the Clean Air Act.
Under the act, power plants – including some large ones in Texas – would have to reduce mercury emissions by as much as 90 percent by the end of 2008. Under the EPA proposal, backed by President Bush, emissions reductions would be smaller and take place over a longer period.
Environmentalists say the best-case scenario under the Bush plan is that emissions would fall by 70 percent by 2018. The EPA says it's too soon to attach such numbers to its proposal, which is in flux.
"We're confident that what does emerge will be protective of public health," said Jim Owen, a spokesman for Edison Electric Institute, a trade group for investor-owned utilities. Power plants, he said, "have been making reductions in mercury. That is a fact of life, and it will continue under any scenario."
Nearly 50 tons of mercury are released each year from 642 coal-fired plants. Four of the top 10 mercury-emitting plants are in Texas.
Two are in Harrison and Limestone counties. Dallas-based TXU operates the other two – Monticello in Titus County and Martin Lake in Rusk County.
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