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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Reigning in Mercury

Air Date: Week of

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A deadline is approaching for a federal rule forcing power plants to cut mercury pollution. Living on Earth’s Jeff Young reports on concerns that the new regulation will be too little, too late.


GELLERMAN: Welcome to Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman, sitting in for Steve Curwood. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will soon release a proposal to cut emissions of mercury from power plants. Mercury is a powerful neurotoxin that can harm the human nervous system. It’s especially dangerous to the developing brain of a fetus. Forty-five states now have mercury advisories warning against eating some types of fish contaminated with mercury. But, as Jeff Young reports from Washington, environmental groups, and some members of Congress, worry that the new federal mercury limits will be too little, too late.

YOUNG: The federal government cracked down on mercury pollution from medical waste and city trash incinerators in the 1990s but ignored one notable source: coal-fired power plants. Conservation groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington thought that was an odd omission. NRDC’s John Walke says those power plants are the country’s biggest source of mercury, pumping out 48 tons a year.

WALKE: Coal-fired power plants got a special deal in the 1990 Clean Air Act and then, subsequently, EPA dragged its feet until finally a lawsuit by my organization, NRDC, forced EPA to study mercury from power plants and to admit that the problem was enormous and demanded cleanup under this program by 2004.

YOUNG: Walke’s group won a court settlement forcing the EPA to issue standards for mercury emissions control. Walke says these so called MACT – maximum available control technology – standards usually result in dramatic cuts by giving polluters a deadline to find and use pollution reduction technology. He thinks a mercury MACT should call for cuts of 90 percent or more. But that’s not what he expects the EPA to call for next month.

WALKE: I expect EPA to issue a rule proposal that will contain a range of options. And there are some already disturbing signs that the Bush administration is contemplating a rule that would reduce less than 50 percent of mercury from the coal-fired power sector.

YOUNG: Walke says the lower target would violate the Clean Air Act. But that law is viewed quite differently just a few blocks away on Washington’s K Street. That’s where Scott Segal directs the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council from his office in the lobbying firm Bracewell and Patterson. Segal says the Clean Air Act gives EPA flexibility on mercury cuts. He thinks the agency should only set limits power plants can meet with technology that’s already in place.

SEGAL: They ought to be set, in their first phase at least, at the levels we are likely to achieve through reductions already underway for sulfur dioxide and oxides of nitrogen. That way we won’t have a compounded regulatory impact that would not only be economically inefficient but also could cause so much switching to other fuels like natural gas that it would have a terrible impact on the poor.

YOUNG: Segal says switching from coal to natural gas could force that limited heating fuel to even higher prices. And he says EPA should give companies more time to make mercury cuts.

SEGAL: We have to be cognizant that we have limited engineering resources, limited access to capital, and overlapping regulatory burdens. All those need to be taken into account when we make sure that a deadline doesn’t come too soon.

YOUNG: A memo to EPA from another lobbyist warns that a strict deadline for mercury cuts could cause power outages. But others familiar with technology for controlling mercury say blackouts and fuel switching are unlikely and that cutting mercury is easier than the energy lobbyists say. Ken Colburn directs NESCAUM, Northeast States for Coordinated Air Use Management, a group with three decades of experience on air quality issues. Colburn’s recent study of pollution controls found mercury cuts of 90 percent or more are possible at relatively low cost.

COLBURN: Something on order of 20 dollars a year would be the cost. I think most of us would agree that removing mercury and its risks to between 60 thousand and 300 thousand births a year would be reasonably cheap at that price.

YOUNG: That’s the number of children born each year that health experts estimate are at risk from mercury exposure. Colburn found more than a dozen promising technologies for reducing mercury waiting in the wings. He says strong action from EPA could be the incentive that would bring those new technologies to market.

COLBURN: I guess the point is that this is a really technology-fertile area at this point. And the showstopper for those technologies will be if EPA does not go ahead with an aggressive mercury MACT rule and instead just lets things be pretty much business as usual or only marginal reductions technologies don’t develop and come to market for the fun of it. They come to meet a market need without EPA adopting a firm mercury MACT rule those technologies will not come out.

YOUNG: The EPA declined to comment for this story. But earlier statements from the agency indicate it is leaning toward a mercury rule that delays implementation for years. That could mean no meaningful control on mercury emissions from power plants before the year 2009. That met with outrage on the Senate floor from Vermont’s Independent Jim Jeffords.

JEFFORDS: What is surprising is that anyone who has children would consider such a delay.

YOUNG: Jeffords drafted a letter to EPA signed by 12 Republican and Democratic Senators urging a strong mercury rule. EPA’s proposal is due by December 15th. The agency expects tens of thousands of cards and calls during the public comment period that will follow. A final rule will come before the end of next year. For Living on Earth, I’m Jeff Young in Washington.



Mercury Falling Reports

Northeast States for Coordinated Air Use Management

U.S. Senate Letter on MACT standards [PDF file]">


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