Senators Wrestle With Impacts of Reducing Mercury

By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC, July 30, 2003 (ENS) - Senate critics of efforts to cap mercury emissions from the nation's coal fired power plants contend that the economic damage of such measures outweigh any health benefits. Mercury caps could devastate the economy through increased energy costs, Colorado Republican Senator Wayne Allard told colleagues Tuesday, and the Senate should be wary of "attempts to legislate a cure before we know what the disease is."

At a Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing Tuesday, Allard and his Republican colleagues took issue with the position that the scientific evidence favors the reduction of mercury emissions from coal fired utilities in order to protect public health.

Modeling shows that any changes would have little effect on mercury exposure to fish, said Committee Chairman James Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican, and "the most recent and comprehensive study to date found no evidence that prenatal mercury exposure from ocean fish presents a neurological risk."

"We have an energy crisis in this country," Inhofe said. "If coal fired plants should go out, it would be a very serious crisis. We have to consider the economic effects."

The economics of reducing mercury from coal fired power plants has become a heated issue on Capitol Hill. These currently emit some 48 tons of mercury each year - the Bush administration's "Clear Skies" plan would set industry caps of 26 tons in 2010 and 15 tons in 2018. coal

Coal fired power plants are the largest remaining unregulated source of mercury in the United States, but are also a key source of energy. (Photo courtesy New Mexico Solar Energy Association)
Reaching the 26 ton mercury cap by 2010 relies on the cobenefits of technologies to cut emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides. But some analysis, however, indicates that the administration's original estimate of the cobenefit reduction of mercury emissions was too large by at least eight tons.

Earlier this month, Bush administration officials told Congress that to get to the 26 ton figure by 2010 would cost power plants some $700 million to $900 million a year, a figure some believe would devastate the nation's electricity generation industry.

The Congress should not rush into short-sighted policy that will cap mercury at "unreasonable levels," said Ohio Senator George Voinovich, a Republican and chair of the subcommittee that will mark up the Clear Skies plan.

But others believe the scientific evidence favors reductions at a pace that exceeds the Bush administration's plan and note that this could be achieved if the EPA would carry out the current regulatory process.

This calls for the EPA to develop a regulation using maximum available control technology (MACT) and the agency has said such a rule could reduce mercury emissions by 90 percent by 2007.

Another bill under consideration by the Senate, authored by Senator Tom Carper, a Delaware Democrat, would cut mercury emissions to 10 tons by 2013.

"It is crazy for anyone to suggest that we should not reduce mercury emissions significantly, since we know its health effects and we have the technologies to control it," said Senator James Jeffords, a Vermont Independent.

Jeffords is sponsoring a bill that would mandate the EPA hold to the plan to reduce mercury emissions by 90 percent.

Coal fired power plants, which are the largest remaining unregulated source of mercury in the United States, emit two forms of mercury - elemental and ionic.

It is the ionic form that presents the primary health concern through fish consumption, as this is the form of mercury that oxides in water and is transformed by bacteria into methylmercury - which fish absorb when they eat aquatic organism and humans absorb when they eat fish.

But this amount is only some one percent of the annual global mercury output, testified Dr. Leonard Levin, the technical leader of the Electric Power Research Institute, a nonprofit utility research group. fishing

Some 44 U.S. states have advisories in effect for mercury contaminated fish. (Photo by George Gentry courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
There is doubt as to how much the United States can do within its own borders to reduce global - or domestic levels, Levin said.

Only 30 percent of mercury emitted by U.S. power plants stays in the United States, Levin testified, and that some 70 percent of mercury deposited in the United States does not originate within its borders.

EPRI modeling finds a 50 percent reduction in mercury emission form U.S. power plants would only result in an "average three percent drop in mercury deposition in the United States and a drop of less than one-tenth of a percent in the number of children 'at risk,'" Levin told the committee.

And critics of mercury regulation honed in on the testimony of Dr. Gary Myers, professor of neurology and pediatrics, with the University of Rochester Medical Center department of neurology. Myers has spearheaded a study in the Seychelles into the effects of mercury on unborn children.

Myers says that his study shows there is not "good scientific evidence that moderate fish consumption is harmful to the fetus."

"This is why it is so important to me that we be cautious when dealing with situations such as these and why we should place strong emphasis on the use of sound science," said Allard. "Our regulations must be thoughtful reflections of what we know."

Senator Hillary Clinton, a New York Democrat, countered that there is a "preponderance of evidence" that the health risks from mercury in fish are real.

"We are not adequately responding to the evidence we already have," Clinton said, adding that policymakers should consider the economic costs of child development issues that could be in part caused by mercury contamination.

This is not something "I feel comfortable studying and waiting too much longer on," Clinton said.

There appears to be enough evidence for the United Nations, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the National Academies of Science. The United Nations tried earlier this year to adopt binding limits on emissions from power plants and other major mercury sources - an effort blocked by the United States - and it recently reduced its recommended safe levels of mercury by more than half.

The U.S. EPA warns that some eight percent of U.S. women have levels of methylmercury in their bodies above its acceptable level, based on data supported by the National Academies of Science. fishing

Predatory fish, such as swordfish, tend to have higher levels of mercury. (Photo courtesy World Wide Fund for Nature)
The Seychelles study should not be ignored, testified Deborah Rice, the former chief toxicologist at the EPA, but it must be considered in context with the other studies.

"It is important to look at the weight of evidence," said Rice, who was the coauthor of the recent EPA report reviewing the evidence of the health effects of methylmercury.

"There is unequivocal evidence that methylmercury harms the developing human brain," Rice said. "You should not rely on one study while eliminating other studies for consideration."