The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on March 15 announced the nation’s first set of regulations to control mercury emissions from power plants.
The culmination of years of squabbling over different approaches, the regulations impose nationwide caps to reduce emissions 70 percent by 2018, while giving individual power plants the flexibility to adopt new technology as it becomes available and determine the best way to meet the new limits.
EPA Plan Encourages Innovation
Environmental activist groups had favored a plan that would more immediately institute inflexible limits on each power plant. The U.S. Department of Energy, however, has noted, in a report released in April 2003, “Today, there is no commercially available technology that can consistently and cost-effectively capture mercury from coal-based power plants.”
Nevertheless, the federal government and electric utility industry are involved in several areas of mercury research, particularly mercury control technologies. Technologies such as advanced coal washing, systems to recycle activated carbon for reuse, and systems to control NOx, SO2, and mercury emissions together are in various stages of research and development.
Currently, the necessary technologies are still experimental and cannot reliably and consistently reduce mercury emissions for the 1,032 plants across the country. As the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), a nonprofit energy and environmental research firm in Palo Alto, California, reported in March 2005, “it will take at least two to three years to complete those demonstrations and evaluate the potential effectiveness of possible new control technologies” (http://www.mercuryanswers.org/solutions.htm).
Activists’ Plan Uneconomical
The immediate and inflexible reductions favored by environmental activists would essentially force an overwhelming number of power plants to switch from coal to natural gas. Scott Segal, director of the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, said, “Oftentimes, the environmental community simply fails to recognize costs adequately. Natural gas prices are almost three times above their historic averages. If a final mercury rule pushes electric generators to shift from reliable and abundant domestic coal resources to potentially less reliable and higher-cost natural gas, the result will be increased electricity prices and higher costs for home heating, food, and a host of consumer and industrial products.”
Added Segal, “Given the particular sensitivity of those living on fixed incomes to natural gas price increases, it is no wonder that Catholic Charities of Cleveland has testified that, ‘the conversion to natural gas from coal would have a devastating effect on the people of Ohio and our country, particularly the poor and the elderly.'”
Environmentalists’ main objection to the “cap-and-trade” plan announced by EPA– which allows facilities to trade and sell emissions allowances while technology is being implemented–is concern it could create ecological “hot spots” of mercury in parts of the country. But that won’t happen, according to EPRI, because most mercury comes from sources other than power plants, which contribute little to the areas of highest deposition in the United States. In fact, EPA’s plan produced greater estimated overall reductions in mercury concentrations than the environmentalists’ plan.
Health Risks Overstated
Environmental activists and some members of Congress are alleging the new EPA rules don’t go far enough and will put thousands of unborn babies and children at risk of neurological damage because of higher methylmercury levels in fish. Their rationale is that the release of mercury from coal-burning power plants contaminates seafood.
However, emissions from U.S. incinerators and other sources have been declining for decades. U.S. power plants are now responsible for less than 1 percent of the global atmospheric mercury, and that percentage will continue to decline. “While this rule is protective of public health,” said EPA spokesperson Cynthia Bergman, “most of the mercury that creates health risks for Americans comes from fish contaminated from sources that we can’t control.”
Moreover, there is no proof the amount of methylmercury in fish Americans eat is dangerous. Despite advisories from the government for pregnant women and children to limit consumption of fish to prevent damage to children’s developing nervous systems, the only cases in the scientific literature of mercury poisoning and subsequent neurological problems from fish were due to an industrial mercury spill in Japan in the 1950s. These resulted in methylmercury levels in fish 40 to 1,000 times higher than those consumed by Americans.
Methylmercury has always been found naturally in fish and in our bodies, but the trace levels of human exposure haven’t increased in centuries–in fact, they’re dropping.
Research that has followed thousands of pregnant women and their children for nearly 15 years has found no evidence the amounts of methylmercury in fish consumed in the United States put children or newborns at risk. Even among populations eating 10 times or more the amounts of fish Americans consume, scientists have found no credible evidence of neurotoxicity, let alone brain damage, developmental delays, retardation, or learning disabilities.
Henry I. Miller, M.D. ([email protected]) is a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and an adjunct fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. Sandy Szwarc is a contributing editor to Tech Central Station and a member of the National Council Against Health Fraud and the Society for Risk Analysis.
For more information …
The April 2003 Department of Energy report addressing mercury control technologies, “A Review of DOE/NETL’s Mercury Control Technology R&D Program for Coal-Fired Power Plants,” is available online at http://www.fossil.energy.gov/programs/powersystems/pollutioncontrols/mercurycontrols_whitepaper.pdf.