PSC comes out against mercury rules
DNR emissions proposal would be too costly, agency says
By LEE BERGQUIST
Article courtesy of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Oct. 5, 2001
The Wisconsin Public Service Commission squared off with
another state agency this week and declared that proposed
rules to limit mercury emissions would cost too much and
harm the electric reliability of Wisconsin.
Even though it agreed that mercury emissions must be
cut in Wisconsin, the PSC decided on Tuesday to take the
unusual step of opposing rules that would cut emissions
by 90% over 15 years that are currently under review by
the Department of Natural Resources.
The decision mirrors the sentiments of Wisconsin utilities,
whose coal-fired electric power plants are major mercury
polluters, and it runs contrary to environmental groups
that see the limits as the best way to cut mercury content
in lakes, rivers and streams.
Wisconsin Electric Power Co. of Milwaukee said the DNR's
proposal would add more than $3.3 billion to energy costs
for its customers. The effect: Rates could more than double.
But Wisconsin's Environmental Decade said the utilities'
claims are overblown. A spokesman said customers would
probably pay no more than an additional $1 per month for
the new equipment.
The PSC rarely criticizes the actions of other agencies.
The DNR declined on Friday to comment.
The limits were pushed by environmental and sports groups,
in part, because of growing concern about state advisories
about the mercury content in fish and mercury's potential
effect on tourism.
A report released earlier this month by Wisconsin's Environmental
Decade and the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation found that
rainfall over Milwaukee contained levels of mercury 10
times higher than federal authorities consider safe in
the Great Lakes region. The study was conducted by researchers
at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University
Mercury is a neurotoxin that affects the brain, spinal
cord, kidneys and liver and is especially harmful to young
children and fetuses.
"I don't like fish advisories any more than any other
sportsman," PSC member Robert M. Garvin said Friday. "But
we have to balance environmental and economic impacts."
The new limits come at a time when Wisconsin is building
up its electric generation capacity.
In its letter to the DNR, commissioners sided with utilities,
saying that the DNR "rule is simply not realistic" because
current technology is unable to eliminate mercury levels
from coal plants.
Limiting mercury emissions by 30% in five years, 50%
in 10 years and 90% in 15 years would require "massive
capital expenditures," force utilities to convert to natural
gas and retire coal-fired plants prematurely, the PSC
This would push Wisconsin to rely too much on a single
source of fuel to generate electricity, the PSC said.
Currently, more than half of Wisconsin's electricity is
generated from coal.
Wisconsin Electric Power Co. was pleased with the commissioners'
"We are not against reducing mercury emissions - we just
don't feel this is the best way to do it," said spokeswoman
Margaret Stanfield. "We voluntarily proposed a 40% reduction
over 10 years."
But Marc Looze, power plant campaign coordinator for
Wisconsin's Environmental Decade, said that commissioners
appeared to not do any original thinking on the matter
and merely followed the utilities' lead.
"I really questioned the degree which they investigated
this," Looze said.