The Bush administration planned to issue the nation's first regulations to cut mercury pollution from electric utilities Tuesday, relying on a market trading system that gives companies 15 years to reduce it nearly by half.
WASHINGTON The Bush administration planned to issue the nation's first regulations to cut mercury pollution from electric utilities Tuesday, relying on a market trading system that gives companies 15 years to reduce it nearly by half.
The Environmental Protection Agency's regulations are aimed at reducing levels of a toxic chemical that can severely damage nervous systems, especially in fetuses and children. They result from a lawsuit brought by an environmental group 13 years ago.
The EPA expects to reduce the current 48 tons a year of mercury from smokestacks of coal-burning power plants down to 31.3 tons in 2010, according to a copy of the rule provided Monday by environmental groups. The regulation would further reduce that to 27.9 tons in 2015, and to 24.3 tons in 2020. EPA officials did not dispute those numbers.
EPA spokeswoman Cynthia Bergman said the mercury rule at first "relies completely on the reductions" that power plants must make to comply with companion regulations issued last week to reduce interstate pollution from fine particles and smog-forming ground-level ozone.
The agency believes significant reductions in mercury will result as a "co-benefit" when plants install new equipment to reduce sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, she said.
"While this rule is protective of public health, most of the mercury that creates health risks for Americans comes from fish contaminated from sources that we can't control," Bergman said Monday. "This is a global problem."
In the meantime, she said, pregnant women and women of childbearing age should heed government warnings to limit fish intake.
Sens. Olympia J. Snowe, R-Maine, and Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said they were disappointed with the new rule. Snowe called it "woefully inadequate and profoundly disappointing" that it would not reduce and could even increase local mercury concentrations. Boxer said she was "appalled that the Bush administration is ignoring the clear science."
Mercury concentrations accumulate in fish and work up the food chain, which has prompted most states to issue fish consumption advisories. Forty percent of mercury emissions come from the smokestacks of more than 450 coal-burning power plants, but those emissions have never been regulated as a pollutant.
The agency's "cap-and-trade" approach, setting a cap on how much pollution should be allowed and then letting companies trade within those limits, was favored by industry. That lets some companies increase pollution while others turn a profit by selling unused pollution allowances.
Scott Segal, director of the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, a group of power companies, said a cap-and-trade program is the best way of dealing with mercury pollution. He said it combines significant cuts while providing stability for consumers and producers.
Environmental and public health groups -- including the Natural Resources Defense Council, whose 1992 lawsuit and subsequent court agreements prompted the mercury regulations -- favored a stricter approach requiring each plant to install new controls. They said Monday the agency still hadn't met its obligations under the Clean Air Act.
"It's the do-nothing approach to mercury," said John Walke, NRDC's director of clean air programs. "They get a holiday basically ... that requires them to reduce mercury no more than would incidentally be achieved from their smog and soot cuts."
Source: Associated Press