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Great Lakes Article:

Critics dismiss new rules on mercury as too weak
By Michael Hawthorne
Chicago Tribune
Published in the Monterey Herald March 15th, 2005


CHICAGO - (KRT) - Mercury pollution from coal-fired power plants will gradually drop nationwide under a rule issued Tuesday by the Bush administration, but critics say the limits don't go far enough or fast enough to protect the public from exposure to the toxic metal.

Environmental groups and public-health advocates say it could take decades before states can stop advising people to limit eating fish contaminated with mercury in the Great Lakes and other bodies of water in the Midwest.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency billed the long-awaited rule as the first national limit on the largest manmade sources of mercury, a neurotoxin that can irreversibly damage the brain before birth and cause developmental problems later in life. The agency estimates more than 15 percent of the children born in the United States each year are exposed to dangerous levels of mercury in the womb, mostly from fish eaten by their mothers.

Two years ago EPA officials had been on track to require each power plant to reduce mercury emissions by as much as up to 90 percent by 2008. Under pressure from power companies and the coal industry, the administration scrapped that idea in favor of a trading system where some plants cut emissions while others keep polluting as long as overall mercury levels decline.

Now the agency's goal is to cut mercury pollution from power plants to 15 tons by 2018 - a 70 percent reduction from current levels. But the EPA's own analysts estimate it could take even longer to reach that target.

The rule worries state officials in Illinois, where nearly two-thirds of the mercury that falls on Chicago is estimated by the EPA to come from sources within the state. Cutting emissions in other states might not substantially reduce fallout here if Illinois utilities choose to buy the right to keep polluting rather than installing equipment that strips mercury from smokestacks.

Nine other states, including Indiana and Michigan, face similar issues, according to an EPA analysis.

"We don't want the rule to create unintended `hot spots' of mercury," said Laurel Kroack, chief of the Illinois EPA air bureau. "It's going to be very complicated. We don't have any easy answers yet."

Mercury is an element released into the air by volcanoes, forest fires, incinerators and factories, and power plants that burn coal. Some of the mercury falls into lakes, streams and oceans through rain and becomes methylmercury, a potent form that becomes more concentrated and harmful as it moves up the food chain.

Scientific research indicates that if certain types of fish are a large part of a mother's diet, mercury passed to her baby in the womb can cause irreversible brain damage. Infants and young children also are vulnerable to mercury in breast milk or fish because their nervous systems are still developing.

The federal government warns pregnant women, nursing mothers and women of childbearing age against eating seafood that contains high levels of the toxin: shark, swordfish, king mackerel and tilefish. They also are advised to limit eating no more than 12 ounces of canned albacore tuna a week - or about two cans.

Those advisories are unlikely to change. Most seafood eaten by Americans comes from parts of the world not affected by mercury pollution from U.S. power plants, EPA officials said.

And though power plants are by far the largest source of airborne mercury in the United States, they account for a tiny fraction of the metal that ends up falling into lakes and streams nationwide, according to EPA estimates.

"Even if your only source of exposure comes from eating freshwater fish, remember only 3 percent of that mercury comes from U.S. power plants," said Jeffrey Holmstead, the U.S. EPA's top air-quality official.

But the agency's own scientists have noted that much of the mercury pollution in the Great Lakes comes from sources within the country. Some have suggested that the region's power plants would need to reduce mercury pollution by at least 90 percent before Great Lakes states could eliminate consumption advisories for fish such as bass and crappie.

Most of the initial reduction in mercury from power plants is expected to be the result of a separate rule announced last week that will require power plants to reduce other forms of air pollution. Equipment designed to curb those pollutants also can reduce mercury emissions.

Allowing utilities to buy and sell the right to pollute already has reduced nationwide emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide, two pollutants that help create smog, acid rain and lung-damaging soot. Top EPA officials and industry representatives said the same system, known as "cap and trade," is the most effective way to control mercury emissions without harming the economy.

"The timetable recognizes that mercury removal technologies and processes are still being developed," said Doug McFarlan, spokesman for Midwest Generation, which owns five coal-fired power plants in the Chicago area.

Environmental and public health groups are planning to challenge the mercury rule in court. Many power companies already are installing equipment that can reduce mercury emissions by up to 90 percent, and critics say the rule discourages others from doing the same.

Under a legal settlement brokered last week between the Justice Department and Dynergy Midwest Generation, the power company will install mercury controls on its Vermilion station near downstate Danville that will reach the 90 percent target by 2007. But industry officials say there is no guarantee the controls will work at every plant.

Trading the right to pollute as long as overall emissions are reduced worked with sulfur dioxide. But critics of the administration's rule think the system is inappropriate for mercury, in part because the toxin accumulates in the human body.

"Most important, it blatantly disregards the threat mercury poses to our children," said John Walke, director of the clean-air program at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "Failing to clean up mercury pollution sentences them to a life of lost opportunities." The EPA's own Children's Health Protection Advisory Committee urged the agency several times during the past year to reconsider a trading system for mercury. The rule "does not sufficiently protect our nation's children," the committee wrote in a letter to top EPA officials.

"We asked the agency to address our concerns about whether this rule would create hot spots," said Melanie Marty, the panel's chairwoman. "It looks like they just went ahead and did what they were going to do anyway."

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