Pa Governor's Plan to Reduce Toxic Mercury Emissions Poised for Federal Approval

Pennsulvania Governor Edward G. Rendell recently hailed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) proposal to approve Pennsylvania's mercury emission reduction plan as a major step forward in protecting the state's citizens and environment.

"This is excellent news for Pennsylvania," said Governor Rendell. "Enacting our mercury emission reduction plan protects our citizens, reduces the levels of this dangerous toxin in our air, and paves the way for growth in our coal industry."

Rendell devised Pennsylvania's state-specific mercury reduction rule in February 2006, saying the proposed federal rule would offer a loophole that could result in little or no mercury reduction from power plants throughout Pennsylvania.

"My two-part mercury reduction strategy takes a much stronger stance than the weaker federal rule that allows companies to reduce mercury emissions at power plants in other states, and trade those reductions for higher emissions at Pennsylvania plants. That does a tremendous disservice to the people of Pennsylvania, as it does nothing to reduce pollution here."

The Governor's plan mandates that power plants must cut emissions of this dangerous pollutant 80 percent by 2010, and by 90 percent before 2015. Under federal clean air laws, coal-fired power plants must reduce sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide. Many plants are doing this by installing scrubbers, which the Governor noted also reduce mercury.

"Pennsylvania's air quality will improve measurably under my plan, with no adverse financial impact to the state's power generators because technology upgrades are already necessary to meet the federal requirements for cutting other pollutants," Governor Rendell said.

Because many power plants are installing scrubbers, Pennsylvania's mercury reduction plan also creates new opportunities for the coal producers. Pennsylvania coal has a relatively high sulfur and mercury content compared to coal from many western states, but with the installation of scrubbers to remove these pollutants, coal from the Keystone State will be more desirable for electric power producers. Mercury is a persistent, bio-accumulative neurotoxin that can remain active in the environment for more than 10,000 years. It endangers pregnant women, children, subsistence fishermen and recreational anglers who are most at risk for health effects that include brain and nervous system damage in children and heart and immune system damage for adults.

EPA's Office of Wetlands, Oceans and Watersheds found that a 30-percent to 100-percent reduction of mercury emissions nationally would translate into savings of $600 million to $2 billion. The cost savings were attributed largely to reduced health risks, including cardiovascular disease. A study prepared by the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis revealed that EPA miscalculated the "nature of the risk involved" when it devised its rule. This study found the public benefit of reducing power plant mercury emissions to 15 tons per year ranges from $119 million annually to as much as $5.2 billion annually from health care cost savings. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that about 6 percent of women have mercury levels in their blood above what the National Academy of Sciences, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and EPA say is safe. That means each year an estimated 600,000 babies are born who have been exposed to unsafe levels of mercury in the womb.

Pennsylvania has 71 electric generating units at 34 sites around the state. Together, these power plants emitted more than 3.26 tons of mercury, nearly 80 percent of all the mercury spewed into the atmosphere in Pennsylvania in 2005. Pennsylvania is second only to Texas in both total mercury emissions from all sources and the total amount of mercury coming from power plants.

As required by law, Pennsylvania's proposed mercury reduction rule was approved separately by two independent state boards. The Independent Regulatory Review Commission approved the proposal 3-2 in November, following a 17-3 approval by the Environmental Quality Board. During the EQB's public comment period, the board received 10,934 comments, a record for a rulemaking in Pennsylvania, with fewer than three-dozen comments opposing the state plan.

EPA will accept public comments on its proposal to approval Pennsylvania's state-specific mercury reduction plan until Oct. 15, 2007. Comments, identified by Docket ID Number EPA-R03-OAR-2007-0345, may be submitted by one of the following methods:

1. http://www.regulations.gov -- Follow the on-line instructions for submitting comments.

2. E-mail Campbell.Dave@epa.gov.

3. Ground mail, or via hand delivery during normal business hours:

EPA-R03-OAR-2007-0345, Dave Campbell, Chief, Permits and Technical Assessment Branch,
Mailcode 3AP11, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Region III
1650 Arch St.
Philadelphia, PA 19103.

Details about Pennsylvania's state-specific mercury reduction plan are available on DEP's Web site at http://www.depweb.state.pa.us, keyword: Mercury. The Rendell administration is committed to creating a first-rate public education system, protecting our most vulnerable citizens and continuing economic investment to support our communities and businesses. To find out more about Governor Rendell's initiatives and to sign up for his weekly newsletter, visit his Web site at: http://www.governor.state.pa.us

This article originally appeared in the 09/01/2007 issue of Environmental Protection.

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