EPA Bows to Pressure, Delays Mercury Rule

By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC, April 30, 2004 (ENS) - U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Leavitt has accepted an offer by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) to delay finalization of the agency's rule to regulate mercury emissions from coal fired power plants. Leavitt said the agency has extended the rule's comment period by 60 days and will delay the final rule until March 15, 2005, but he defended the proposal that has drawn criticism from virtually all interested parties except for the power plant industry.

Announcing the change Thursday, the EPA chief stressed that the administration's plan is the first in U.S. history to address mercury emissions from power plants and said he has no intention of withdrawing the proposal.

The extension gives the EPA more time to gather "all the available data," Leavitt told reporters Thursday.

Under terms of a court approved settlement agreement with the NRDC, the federal agency was required to issue final rules by December 15, 2004.

A multitude of critics has called on Leavitt to extend the period for public comment past today - the original deadline - but the EPA Administrator said the court settlement prevented such an extension.

Earlier this week NRDC offered to extend the deadline until March 15, 2005 and also called on Leavitt to withdraw the proposal, which critics say favors industry over public health and the environment.

In addition to accepting that deadline, the EPA will take comments on the rule through June 29, 2004.

"Our goal will be to make the right decision on mercury in the interest of public health," Leavitt said. Leavitt

EPA Administrator Mike Leavitt says the administration is taking clean air to the next level. (Photo courtesy EPA)
But there are few signs critics will stop pressuring Leavitt to scrap the the proposal.

Ten state attorneys general, 48 U.S. senators, the association of state pollution control officers, along with a wide range of scientists, environmental and public health organizations all have announced their opposition to the Bush administration's mercury plan.

"Extending the deadline on this deeply flawed rule moves us back for now from the brink of getting this indefensible plan, but what Administrator Leavitt still needs to do is to withdraw this proposal and produce a new one, grounded in science and in the public's interest," said Senator Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat.

Mercury emissions from 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.

The Bush administration has offered two proposals, but clearly favors one that would set a cap in 2010 on mercury emissions and employ a trading plan to bring emissions down to 15 tons by 2018 - a 70 percent reduction.

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.

They say an emissions trading program, which means individual power plants will not reduce emissions at the same rate, will create local hot spots of pollution, disproportionately impacting local communities.

A report in December by the environmental research group Environmental Defense analyzed air pollution modeling data from the EPA and found that local sources commonly contribute 50 to 80 percent of mercury deposition at the nation's current hot spots. Leahy

Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy has emerged as a leading critic of the Bush mercury proposal. (Photo courtesy Office of the Senator)
The finding refutes a key argument by supporters of the cap and trade system, who say local hot spots are not a serious problem. Industry representatives consistently cite figures from the Electric Power Research Industry that estimate that on average some 70 percent of mercury deposits come from global sources.

Mercury does not break down and current emissions of mercury add to the existing pool, which is continuously mobilized, deposited on land and water, and remobilized.

Exposure to mercury, usually through eating contaminated fish, can cause permanent harm to the brain in humans and reproductive harm in wildlife.

Young children whose brains are still developing, and women of childbearing age are most at risk - EPA scientists estimate at least one in eight American women of childbearing age have unsafe levels of mercury levels in her blood.

Critics say the administration should proceed with a rule that adopts "maximum achievable control technology" (MACT) standard under the Clean Air Act - supporters say these technologies are available and could reduce mercury emissions by some 90 percent by 2007.

In a presentation to an industry trade group in 2001, EPA officials said MACT could reduce mercury emissions 90 percent - to 5.5 million tons - four years after a rule is finalized.

A coalition of national and state conservation groups filed suit Wednesday in federal court to the EPA to require maximum achievable reductions in mercury and other toxic air pollutants "as expeditiously as possible."

Industry groups and the administration say such technologies are too expensive and not commercially viable.

Scott Segal of the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, which represents power plants, says the EPA needs to "highlight the need for realistic assumptions about the current state of mercury control technology." coal

Coal fired power plants contribute some 40 percent of the nation's mercury pollution. (Photo courtesy New Mexico Solar Energy Association)
"An inflexible mercury control program can result in unacceptable fuel-switching from coal to natural gas, hurting American consumers, the elderly, and industrial workers," Segal said.

But the argument that the technologies are too expensive or not commercially available has been disputed by the nonprofit association of air quality agencies of the Northeast states, which says the industry's annual mercury emissions of could be reduced to seven tons through existing air pollution controls and utilization of commercially available mercury reduction technologies.

For more information on the mercury rule see: http://www.epa.gov/air/mercuryrule/