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Great Lakes Article:

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 of Minnesota.

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 said.

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' response.

"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.

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