Michigan can't afford mercury plan
Don't force costly, unproven fix on utilities that aren't pollution source
Diane S. Katz
Published December 13, 2006
T he Granholm administration is preparing to impose strict requirements on coal-fired power plants to reduce mercury emissions. The governor undoubtedly has the best of intentions in ordering the crackdown. Her strategy, however, bears no relation to the actual sources of mercury in Michigan, the risk of exposure or the availability of control technologies
Gov. Jennifer Granholm first pledged to "phase out and eliminate" mercury in her 2002 election campaign. But not until this year did she order the state Department of Environmental Quality to draft a rule to force Detroit Edison, Consumers Energy and other coal-burning utilities to reduce mercury emissions 90 percent by 2015.
The principal shortcoming of the governor's plan is that coal-fired power plants in Michigan contribute only about 2 percent of the mercury that enters the soil or water annually, according to a study by scientists with the Massachusetts-based Atmospheric & Environmental Research (AER) Inc.
Mercury not from Michigan
Michigan utilities only contribute between 0.5 percent and 3 percent of all the mercury deposits throughout the entire Great Lakes. These findings are cited in the final report of the governor's mercury work group.
Consequently, the elimination of mercury from power plant emissions will have a negligible effect on human health and the environment. The biggest impact will be economic. The high cost of new control technologies will increase energy costs, further burdening family budgets and putting Michigan at an even greater competitive disadvantage.
Most mercury in the atmosphere is released from surface and undersea volcanic eruptions, as well as from deep-sea vents, hot springs, ocean evaporation and the erosion of soil and rock.
The bulk of mercury deposits in the state actually originate far beyond Michigan's borders, according to a 2004 study of deposits at the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. AER researchers determined that 30 percent of the mercury deposits originated from sources related to human activity (anthropogenic) throughout North America. Emissions from Asia as well as natural sources contributed about 25 percent each, while the balance originated in Europe, Africa, and South and Central America.
Real risks of pollution
The governor's directive also misconstrues the risk of power plant emissions. During the Clinton administration, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency concluded that there are no health risks from mercury in the air in the vicinity of coal-fired power plants or from ingesting crops grown in the vicinity of power plants.
The extent of harm from current levels of mercury in fish is a matter of fierce debate.
The industrial use of mercury in the United States has been dramatically reduced in recent years, decreasing more than 75 percent between 1980 and 1997. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, mercury levels in human blood declined between 1999 and 2002.
These developments have been achieved through a combination of phasing out some uses, improved control technologies and product recycling.
As it is, the emissions controls required for other pollutants -- particulate matter, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides -- already remove about 40 percent, on average, of the mercury emitted by power plants. And under federal rules issued last year, power plants must reduce mercury emissions 70 percent by 2018.
Deadline poses problem
The state deadline of 2015 is problematic, too. According to the EPA, the most advanced technology for mercury capture -- activated carbon injection -- is not available commercially. In addition, there are no long-term data on the performance of this technology, nor has it been tested on the variety of existing power plant systems.
In her directive, Granholm all but conceded these shortcomings by providing exceptions to the emissions reduction deadline. For example, a utility would be given additional time to comply if emissions control technology were installed but failed to demonstrate compliance.
Additional time also would be provided if a power plant demonstrated that the incremental cost of surpassing the federal requirements exceeded a fixed percentage of the utility's revenue (the cost threshold is to be determined during the rule-making process).
But it makes little sense to require the use of technology that is expected to fail. Nor is it rational to base a regulatory deadline on an arbitrarily fixed marginal cost.
Rather than commit to a costly, redundant and ineffective regulatory regime, Michigan would do better to cooperate with neighboring states and the EPA to better define the risks associated with mercury exposures and improve our understanding of the complex interplay between mercury emissions and deposits.
Diane S. Katz is director of science, environment and technology for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and education institute based in Midland. Please fax letters to (313) 222-6417 and e-mail them to firstname.lastname@example.org.