Mercury Rising: The Debate Over EPA's Proposed Rule Flares Up

The policy makers' rhetoric may be about lowering mercury amounts, but the heat of the debate is reaching thermometer-busting levels. On Jan. 30, 2004, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published the proposed Utility Mercury Reductions Rule to reduce mercury emissions from power plants by 70 percent by 2018 using a market-based cap-and-trade system. On March 16, the agency published a supplemental proposal providing more details to the cap-and-trade system. EPA also acknowledged that its rule as currently drafted would not achieve the originally proposed levels of mercury reductions by 2018 and EPA Administrator Mike Leavitt called for additional agency analysis in pursuit of that goal. In May, EPA announced that it would extend the public comment period, but the agency is still scheduled to complete the final rule in December 2004.

EPA estimates current annual mercury emissions from U.S. industry at 48 tons. The proposed rule would set a cap on mercury emissions from U.S. coal-fired power plants at 15 tons in 2018. The proposal would achieve these reductions through market-based emissions trading in which power plants would be given a limited set of emissions allowances. If they reduced their emissions to less than the amount covered by allowances, they could sell their surplus allowances or bank them for future use. According to EPA, this approach is better than traditional command-and-control regulations. For more information, go to www.epa.gov/air/mercuryrule.

The driver for this proposed rule is based on health concerns. Mercury is a well-documented neurotoxin that can be particularly hazardous to developing fetuses and young children. Exposure to mercury can lead to permanent nervous system damage and retarded development. The concern is that airborne mercury from power plants is being deposited into U.S. water bodies and then quickly passed up the food chain to fish. Recently, EPA and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration warned consumers to cut back on certain fish, such as tuna and swordfish, which have been shown to have high levels of mercury.

EPA's proposed rule has prompted strong criticism. Opponents point out that in 2000, the Clinton Administration announced that it would regulate mercury as a hazardous air pollutant. Under the Clean Air Act, that designation would have forced utilities to install more stringent pollution controls. Current mercury emissions were slated to fall by 90 percent by 2008.

On April 1, a coalition of 45 U.S. senators and a group of 10 state attorneys general sent separate letters to Leavitt protesting the proposed rule and requesting that EPA withdraw it and create a new rule with stricter requirements.

Not surprisingly, environmental activist groups have also been quite vocal. For example, Cindy Copeland of Environmental Defense said, "EPA's proposed mercury rule -- with its weak cap, woefully slow time line and inappropriate use of trading -- would needlessly leave a whole new generation of children at risk of exposure to highly toxic mercury pollutants even though cost-effective technologies are at hand."

Industry groups have been quick to defend the proposed rule. Scott Segal, director of the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, issued a statement in April saying, "The proposed cap-and-trade program is consistent with clean-air law and policy." In response to the charge that the proposal takes too long to achieve mercury reductions, he added, "that doesn't square with past cap-and-trade experience." According to Segal, the acid rain trading program attained reductions well in advance of statutory deadlines. He also warned against mercury emissions regulations that push power plants away from coal to natural gas, which is subject to high market volatility.

One bright sign on the horizon is that emerging technologies could make the use of coal in power generation much cleaner. A developing pollution control technique called "activated carbon injection" and current particulate matter controls have the potential to achieve 70 percent control of mercury emissions from power plants by 2010, as set out in the EPA white paper "Control of Mercury Emissions from Coal-Fired Electric Utility Boilers," which was released in February. Activated carbon injection is currently being tested at several power plants. With this technology, activated carbon is injected in the emissions stream, where the mercury released from coal during combustion clings to it. The activated carbon coated with the mercury is removed by an electrostatic precipitator, which many power plants use to control particulate matter. Unfortunately, the technology is not yet commercially available. The EPA white paper is available at www.epa.gov/ttn/atw/utility/hgwhitepaperfinal.pdf.

Hopefully, new technology will soon allow our nation to have the power we need while protecting the health of our citizens. In the mean time, however, all sides of the mercury issue will continue their heated debate about the best way to reduce emissions and protect human health given our existing pollution control techniques.

This editorial originally appeared in the June 2004 issue Environmental Protection, Vol. 15, No. 6.

This article originally appeared in the 06/01/2004 issue of Environmental Protection.

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