Illinois to Slash Mercury Emissions 90 Percent by 2009

SPRINGFIELD, Illinois, January 7, 2006 (ENS) - The state of Illinois is taking action to cut mercury emissions from power plants by 90 percent over the next three and a half years. Governor Rod Blagojevich unveiled the proposal Thursday, saying it will reduce toxic mercury emissions faster and more thoroughly than new federal restrictions adopted last spring and will achieve the largest overall amount of mercury reduction of any state in the country.

With this proposal, Illinois joins the six other states that have standards stricter than the federal guidelines or are in the process of developing them.

Recognizing the varying age and condition of existing coal-fired power plants that produce energy in Illinois, the proposal would require power plant operators to reduce emissions by an average of 90 percent across their entire fleet of plants by June 30, 2009.

Each individual plant must achieve at least a 75 percent reduction by 2009, and 90 percent reduction by December 31, 2012. Illinois' fleet of coal burning power plants is the largest in the nation to be subject to such dramatic emission limits.

The proposed rules prohibit power plants from purchasing allowances, or trading emissions credits with other companies or states – practices that can lead to toxic hot-spots in areas where individual plants are able to get around emissions standards.

“Mercury emissions hurt the environment and can cause serious physical harm to children," said Governor Blagojevich, a Democrat. "The new federal mercury regulations don’t go far enough in protecting the public from what we know are very dangerous emissions."


Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich finds the federal mercury rule reduces emissions too slowly, leaving women and children at risk of mercury poisoning. (Photo courtesy EPA)
Mercury can cause serious health problems to the human nervous system – pregnant women, women of childbearing age and children younger than 15 years of age are especially at risk.

Developing fetuses can be exposed to mercury when a mother eats tainted fish and can suffer mental retardation, cerebral palsy, lower IQs, slow motor functions, deafness, blindness and other health problems.

Recent studies indicate that as many as 10 percent of babies born each year in the United States are exposed to excessive mercury levels in the womb.

Environmental and health groups called the proposal a victory for public health in Illinois.

“Governor Blagojevich's mercury reduction plan is a home run," said Howard Learner, executive director of the Environmental Law and Policy Center. "It will protect our children's health and environment by reducing 90 percent of the mercury pollution from Illinois coal plants."

“If enacted, this proposal will not only protect the health of Illinois children, it will also set an example for America to follow in addressing a major public health problem,” said Jack Darin, director of the Sierra Club, Illinois Chapter.

“Mothers and women hoping to have children shouldn't have to worry that by eating fish and feeding it to their kids that they could be doing permanent damage to a child's brain," Darin said. "We hope Illinois power plants will heed Gov. Blagojevich's call to clean up their act and protect our children's health. The technology to protect our kids is available, affordable, and it’s time we put it on these smokestacks.”

power plant

Illinois' Kincaid Generation plant, owned and operated by Dominion Resources, burns subbituminous coal. (Photo courtesy Kincaid Generation)
“The good news is, the state is doing what federal regulators refused to do," said Jean Flemma, executive director of Prairie Rivers Network. “Instead of having some of the largest mercury emissions in the country, Illinois will now be at the forefront of reducing mercury pollution, protecting our children's health and serving as a model for other states.

Mercury contamination is a nationwide problem. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued the Clean Air Mercury Rule on March 10, 2005, that requires coal-fired power plants to reduce mercury emissions by 47 percent by 2010, and 79 percent by 2018. But critics of the rule say that if existing Clean Air Act measures were enforced, substantial mercury reductions would happen by 2008.

In the United States, an estimated 43 percent of mercury emissions come from power plants that burn coal, making them the largest human source of mercury in the air. The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) estimates that the state’s coal-fired power plants emit 3.5 tons of mercury every year.

“The federal rules just don’t go far enough. Illinois’ approach is more stringent and effective in that it will require greater reductions, quicker reductions, and guarantee that the emissions are drastically reduced in Illinois,” said Doug Scott, director of the IEPA.

Mercury becomes toxic when it enters lakes and streams, precipitated from the atmosphere by rain and snow. People can become exposed to dangerous levels of mercury by eating fish from contaminated lakes and waterways.

The Illinois Fish Containment Monitoring Program has issued “fish advisories” warning Illinois residents to limit the amount of fish they eat from Lake Michigan and all of Illinois’ inland lakes and waterways.


Fishing is not so great when the catch might be contaminated with methylmercury, a toxic chemical formed by the action of bacteria on mercury emissions deposited on waterways. (Photo credit unknown)
“Under the Environmental Article of the Illinois Constitution, all of us have the duty to provide for a healthful environment for this and future generations,” said Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn. “Today's proposed rule to cut mercury emissions from power plants will dramatically improve Illinois' environment for this and future generations.”

The new emission standards are expected to provide economic benefits across the state. State officials say construction jobs will be created as companies invest in pollution control equipment and installation for their coal-fired power plants. And as mercury levels drop, the state’s fishing industry may also see a boost because the fish will be safer to eat.

“By requiring Illinois power plants to cut 90 percent or more of their mercury pollution by 2009, this administration is making it clear that putting our children at risk for brain damage is not an acceptable cost of doing business in this state,” said Rebecca Stanfield, executive director of the Illinois Public Interest Research Group.

“Mercury is a poison that hits the most sensitive among us - children, women and subsistence anglers - from fish consumption in Lake Michigan and other state waters," said Cameron Davis, executive director of the Alliance for the Great Lakes. "We commend Governor Blagojevich for his stand in recognizing that Lake Michigan and the public health are too important to leave unprotected by weak federal measures.”

The new rule will be submitted to the Illinois Pollution Control Board in February. Connecticut, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina and Wisconsin are also cutting mercury emissions more steeply than the federal rule.