Opposition Grows to Bush's Mercury Cap and Trade Plan

WASHINGTON, DC, April 2, 2004 (ENS) - The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) proposal to reduce mercury emissions from the nation's power plants is too lax and should be scrapped, 10 Northeastern states and 45 U.S. senators told the Bush administration in two separate letters sent Thursday. The letters expand the widespread opposition to the administration's mercury proposal, which critics say favors industry over public health and the environment.

"The states believe that EPA's mercury proposals do not meet the minimum requirements of the federal Clean Air Act and would not withstand legal challenge," said Pennsylvania Environmental Protection Secretary Kathleen McGinty, who headed the White House Council on Environmental Quality in the Clinton administration.

The states weighing in as opposed to the proposal include Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Mexico, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Vermont.

In a separate letter, the bipartisan coalition of 45 U.S. senators, including seven Republicans, said the proposal is not ""sufficient or defensible."

"We can address this public health and environmental problem," the senators said. "According to many states, industry experts, and past EPA analyses, the technology to dramatically clean up these plants is available and affordable."

Canadian environmental officials have also joined the chorus of opposition to the Bush mercury plan. A submission Thursday from Environment Canada to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency urges faster action in the United States to reduce mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants to protect the health and environment of Canadians.

Environment Canada's modeling indicates that 10 percent of the mercury deposited in Canada each year comes from U.S. sources, with that figure climbing to 38 percent in the Great Lakes Region, home to more than nine million Canadians. Mercury also has what the Canadian government calls "a serious and disproportionate impact on Canada’s Northern and Arctic communities."

In Canada, federal-provincial and territorial governments are working under nationwide standards to prevent the release into the environment of 60 to 90 percent of the mercury in coal by 2010. coal

The administration's proposals to regulate emissions from coal fired power plants have been criticized by environmentalists as less stringent than existing law. (Photo courtesy FreeFoto)
Mercury emissions from the nation's 1,100 coal-fired power plants are currently unregulated - these facilities emit some 48 tons of mercury each year, accounting for about 40 percent of the nation's mercury pollution.

Under terms of a court approved settlement agreement with environmental groups, the EPA is required to issue final rules by December 15, 2004.

The Bush administration has offered two proposals, but clearly favors one that would set a cap on mercury emissions and employ a plan allowing trading in emissions credits to bring emissions down. The original proposal called for capping mercury emissions at 15 tons by 2018, but the administration says it is considering faster reductions.

Critics note that the EPA's mercury contained 12 paragraphs almost verbatim from an industry proposal and contend a cap and trade system is an inappropriate form of regulation for mercury.

Scientists have shown that mercury can cause brain and nerve damage and studies indicate children and women of childbearing age are at a disproportionate risk.

Leavitt, who appeared Thursday in front of a Senate panel to discuss the administration's air pollution plans, defended its mercury proposals and told Senators that "a number of fictions have crept into this discussion."

The administration is not seeking to roll back standards, he said.

"There has never been a standard," Leavitt told the Senate Clean Air, Climate Change and Nuclear Safety Subcommittee.

The claim that the agency said it could cut mercury emissions by 90 percent by 2007 is "another fiction," said Leavitt, who added that if anyone made such a claim "they were misinformed."

Technology to make mercury cuts of such magnitude "will not be adequately tested nor widely deployable until 2010," according to the EPA chief. Leavitt

EPA Administrator Mike Leavitt says the administration is taking clean air to the next level. (Photo courtesy EPA)
"We ought not to move until we have the technology," Leavitt said.

But in a presentation to an industry trade group in 2001, EPA officials said maximum achievable control technologies could reduce mercury emissions 90 percent - to 5.5 million tons - by the end of 2007.

"Rather than pushing forward on mercury reductions, the EPA appears to be rolling back," said Senator Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut Democrat. "Greater mercury reductions are technologically and politically feasible."

The mercury issue could emerge as an important part of the presidential debate and Bush critics see the EPA proposal as a poster child for what is wrong with the administration's environmental policy.

The Bush administration has a "credibility chasm on air pollution policy," Vermont Independent Senator James Jeffords told Leavitt.

Its air pollution policies and proposals "add up to more disease, damage and death for the public and more profits for polluters," Jeffords said.

Leavitt and several Republicans on the committee said the Bush air policies balance environmental protection and economic growth.

The mercury plan is only part of the administration's "national strategy to take clean air to the next level," said Leavitt, who touted the administration's efforts to help states and counties meet new health based standards for ozone and fine particulate matter.

The EPA will inform counties on April 15 whether they are in attainment of the new ozone standard, which measures the pollutant during an eight hour period. Some 500 counties are expected to be in nonattainment of the ozone standard - environmentalists say federal lawmakers are scrambling to get unwarranted exemptions for many areas across the country.

The agency is required to propose an implementation strategy for the fine particulate matter standards this summer, with designation of attainment and nonattainment areas in December - some 200 counties are expected to fall short of attainment. DC

The nation's capital suffers some of the worst smog in the United States. (Photo courtesy EPA)
The new standards are too stringent for many states to reasonably comply, Leavitt said.

"Some states could take all their cars off the road, clean up their power plants and close down factories and still not be in attainment," he told the committee.

The proposed air transport rule would remedy this problem for many areas, Leavitt said, by reducing pollution from power plants that drifts across counties and states.

The transport rule, which mirrors part of the President's controversial Clear Skies plan, would use a cap and trade system to cut sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxide (NOx) power plant emissions some 70 percent by 2015.

Leavitt said the rule will be finalized by the end of the year.

Critics say Clear Skies will cut air pollution at a slower rate than existing law - the plan has drawn sharp criticism from environmentalists, public health groups and state air pollution control officials and failed to get out of committee in Congress in 2002 and 2003.

Leavitt told the committee the administration still wants Congress to pass Clear Skies, but in order to help states and counties "these rules have to be in place."

"It is clear that the preferred way to resolve this would be through legislation," Leavitt said. "There is a 100 percent probability that these rules will be challenged in litigation by someone on some side of the issue … that has become a ritual of environmental action."

Ohio Republican Senator George Voinovich praised the administration, but warned that the new ozone and fine particulate matter "standards will cause the loss of jobs and economic growth."

"We must put these rules in context - our air is not getting dirtier, it is getting substantially cleaner," Voinovich said. "This success about improving our environment is simply not told enough."

That point undermines support for Clear Skies and proves that "economic growth and environmental protection go hand in hand," said Senator Hillary Clinton, a New York Democrat.

"I am concerned that the fact that we have made this progress is being used to argue that we can change direction now," Clinton said.

"When we tighten environmental and public health standards we drive the private sector to innovate," she said. "We could have a jobs explosion from clean air and clean energy technologies."