Environmental Groups Point Way to Mercury Reduction

On Dec. 18, a coalition of public health and environmental groups filed a lawsuit in federal court seeking a firm and enforceable new deadline for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to require deep reductions in mercury and other toxic air pollutants emitted from coal- and oil-fired power plants. Power plants are the nation's largest unregulated source of mercury pollution, and also emit enormous quantities of lead, arsenic, and other hazardous chemicals.

Attorneys at Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF), Clean Air Task Force, Earthjustice, Natural Resources Defense Council, Southern Environmental Law Center, and Waterkeeper Alliance filed the lawsuit in D.C. District Court on behalf of the American Nurses Association, CBF, Conservation Law Foundation, Environment America, Environmental Defense Fund, Izaak Walton League of America, Natural Resources Council of Maine, Natural Resources Defense Council, The Ohio Environmental Council, Physicians for Social Responsibility, Sierra Club, and Waterkeeper Alliance.

The lawsuit follows President-elect Barack Obama's appointment of Lisa Jackson to head the agency. Groups expressed hope that the incoming administration will take a new approach to regulating pollution from power plants and act quickly to bring the problem under control.

"We are far past both the legal and, indeed, the moral deadline for EPA to take action to control toxic air emissions from this enormous industrial source of mercury and other poisons," said Clean Air Task Force attorney Ann B. Weeks. "At the same time we are hopeful that the Obama administration will act quickly to mandate the deep cuts in this pollution, as the Clean Air Act requires."

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, eight percent of American women of childbearing age have mercury in their bodies at levels high enough to put their babies at risk of birth defects, loss of IQ, learning disabilities and developmental problems.

Under the Clean Air Act, EPA was required to control power plants' emissions by December, 2002. Instead of meeting that requirement, however, the Bush administration asked Congress to roll back the control requirements. Then, unable to win Congress' support for that request, the administration unlawfully tried to declare that the required pollution controls were simply not necessary or appropriate.

"Power plants are the largest unregulated industrial source of air toxics," said Earthjustice attorney Jim Pew. "It is unconscionable that six years after the deadline for action, we still do not have air toxics controls on these large existing sources of pollution."

The federal appeals court in D.C. tossed out EPA's attempt in February 2008, in a lawsuit brought by a coalition of environmental and public health groups, states and Native American tribes. Baffled by the Bush administration's reasons as to why it should not set these requirements, the Court compared its logic to that of the dangerously irrational Queen of Hearts character in Alice in Wonderland. Now EPA is back where it started: in violation of the 2002 statutory deadline to control power plants' toxic pollution.

In the intervening 10 months since the court ruling, EPA has made no moves to comply with the court's order, prompting he new lawsuit.

"With the devastating impacts mercury is having on our waterways, fish, women and children in the US, EPA's failure to pass a mercury control rule that safeguards both human and environmental health is perhaps the most damning example of an agency blind to its mission and mandate," stated Waterkeeper Alliance Legal Director Scott Edwards. "Sadly, once again, the Bush administration has accomplished what the energy industry hired it to do eight years ago -- protect their profits, promote their interests and avoid any accountability."

A copy of the complaint is available here: www.earthjustice.org/library/legal_docs/power-plant-pollution-dec-08-complaint.pdf