Bush Wants EPA to Remove Mercury as Toxic Substance
By: Josef Hebert
WASHINGTON (AP) - The Bush administration is proposing to abandon the idea of treating mercury as a toxic substance requiring maximum pollution controls, favoring instead a plan that allows power plants to curtail emissions through a trading system, according to internal documents and officials involved in the discussion. The cap-and-trade approach for containing mercury, a substance that can affect the nervous system, is being reviewed by the White House and is expected to be announced by the Environmental Protection Agency in the coming weeks.
EPA Administrator Mike Leavitt vowed in a speech Tuesday that the agency soon will "move forward with the first-ever regulations addressing mercury emissions from power plants." But he gave no details.
The draft EPA proposal sent to the White House would essentially cap mercury emissions from coal-burning power plants nationwide at 34 tons a year by 2010, a reduction of about 30 percent from current levels, according to a copy of the document obtained by The Associated Press.
But the regulation also would allow utilities to trade mercury emission credits - meaning some plants may have to make only modest reductions, if any - if they choose to buy emissions credits instead of installing pollution controls.
This approach would differ radically from the proposal issued during the last weeks of the Clinton administration, when then-EPA Administrator Carol Browner concluded that mercury should be regulated as a toxic substance through the use of "maximum achievable technology" at each of nearly 500 coal-fired power plants.
That eventually could cut mercury emissions by 90 percent, she said.
Jeffrey Holmstead, head of the EPA's air office, said Tuesday that the a cap-and-trade system is "our favored approach because it gets us greater (emission) reductions." He said the maximum technology approach still would be offered for comment before a final regulation is issued a year from now.
Environmentalists and health advocates argue that while a cap-and-trade system might be desirable in dealing with other sources of power plant pollution, such as smog-causing ozone or sulfur-producing acid rain, it is not in the case of mercury.
"It is inappropriate to trade an air toxic such as mercury," said Vicky Patton, an attorney for Environmental Defense, an organization that has touted emissions trading systems for a broad range of other pollutants.
Man-produced mercury is a persistent, toxic substance that affects the nervous system and is particularly dangerous to pregnant women and children. Usually exposure comes from eating contaminated fish. At least 43 states have advisories to limit fish consumption from certain waters believed to have mercury contamination.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently found that 8 percent of women of childbearing age had mercury in their blood exceeding levels considered safe by the EPA.
The utilities have lobbied both the EPA and the White House, arguing that they need flexibility to meet any new mercury pollution controls and that a cap-and-trade system would help achieve that. Utility executives met with EPA and Office of Management and Budget officials in at least four meetings on the mercury issue since Sept. 24, according to the OMB.
Daniel Riedinger, a spokesman for the Edison Electric Institute, said the industry does not believe that emissions trading would create "hot spots" of mercury contamination - as some environmentalists have argued.
He said these "hypothetical concerns about hot spots should preclude EPA from considering a regulatory option that could lead to significant reductions in (mercury) emissions but do so more cost-effectively."
But Jeremy Symons of the National Wildlife Federation said the EPA's new approach allowing emissions trading "doesn't do what's necessary to protect public health." The Browner plan, he said, would have addressed mercury pollution the same way the government dealt with the lead issue years ago.
William Becker, executive director of the association that represents state air pollution officials, called the cap-and-trade approach "a terrible decision."
He said the proposal would delay mercury regulation three years until 2010, while the approach previously being considered would have required pollution controls at plants by 2007.
"They are rescinding (a policy) that concluded mercury from utilities needs to be regulated ... and replacing it with a substitute that is likely to be found to be illegal ... that allows for trading between facilities without protecting local adverse impacts," said Becker.
Power plants account for about 40 percent of mercury emissions, but those emissions have never been regulated by the EPA despite more than a decade of studying the issue. As part of a lawsuit, a federal court directed the EPA to issue a proposed regulation by Dec. 15 with a final rule to be issued a year after that.
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