Critics dismiss new rules on mercury
as too weak
By Michael Hawthorne
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
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
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
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."