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Mercury Option

State and local regulators offer plan as alternative to Bush Administration rule

by Cheryl Hogue
November 21, 2005 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 83, Issue 47

Credit: Photodisc
Credit: Photodisc

Air Pollution

State and local air pollution regulators are pushing a new plan for slashing mercury emissions from power plants, repudiating the Bush Administrations regulation of the neurotoxic metal as too weak and too slow.

Their strategy would eliminate 80% of the mercury released from coal-fired power plants by 2008 and 90–95% by 2012. The plan represents a major challenge to the Bush EPAs industry-backed rule to curb mercury emissions, which is under attack in federal court by several states and two environmental groups.

EPA estimates that its regulation, issued in March, will cut the 48 tons of power-plant mercury released annually by 21% in 2010 and by 69% after 2018—perhaps as late as 2025. Plant operators will not need to install new equipment for the first phase of these cuts, the agency says. The first step in mercury reduction will occur as a by-product of another EPA rule that trims emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides.

The state and local regulators plan, unveiled on Nov. 14, excludes perhaps the most controversial element of the Bush regulation: trading of mercury emissions.

Under the EPA rule, power generators will be given credits allowing them to emit a specified amount of mercury. A plant operator that cuts releases below this amount could sell its excess allowances to facilities that need more credits.

But interstate trading potentially can create or exacerbate local hot spots, where mercury concentrations are high due to fallout from power-plant emissions, say the two groups—the State & Territorial Air Pollution Program Administrators and the Association of Local Air Pollution Control Officers.

Their new strategy is a model rule that state and local regulators throughout the U.S. can adopt. The Clean Air Act allows these regulators to issue emission standards that are stricter than those set by EPA. Some 20 states are considering adoption of the model rule, which is redefining the national policy debate on power-plant mercury, says S. William Becker, executive director of both organizations.

The model rule would allow any utility with more than one generating facility within a state to average the annual mercury emissions of all its units. This, Becker says, would give a company the flexibility to decide the degree to which it would control the mercury released by each of its generating units.

EPA dismisses the new strategy. Eryn Witcher, agency spokeswoman, says EPAs rule with the trading scheme is the best approach because it protects public health, reduces mercury, and maintains fuel diversity and energy security.

Environmentalists say the new plan is better than EPAs rule but argue that mercury should be reduced even faster through mandatory emission controls on each power plant.

Scott Segal, director of the power industrys Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, says feasible technology for reducing mercury faster and deeper than the EPA rule requires is not available for all types of coal nor for all power-plant configurations. He says the model rule ensures a rougher road for consumers.

The state and local regulators say their plan would add $1.00 to $2.00 to the average monthly household electricity bill, which Becker says is less than the cost of lunch at McDonalds.


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