EPA Proposes Mercury Limits

Published January 1, 2004

Environmental Protection Agency documents indicate the agency is poised to require dramatic cuts in power-plant mercury emissions. Utilizing a cap-and-trade approach similar to EPA’s successful battle against acid rain, the agency is expected to mandate a 70 percent cut in mercury emissions by 2018.

Facing a December 15 deadline to submit its mercury regulations, EPA documents indicated the agency would pursue an ambitious goal utilizing a market-friendly approach. Currently, U.S. power plants emit 48 tons of mercury per year. Under the new EPA regulations, power plants will be required to slash mercury emissions to 34 tons by 2010 and 15 tons in 2018. Notably, the EPA regulations mark the first time any nation has placed limits on power-plant mercury emissions.

Congress’s failure to act on President George W. Bush’s Clear Skies Initiative, which proposes similar cuts in mercury emissions, did not deter EPA from enacting deep cuts of its own. “There will be no retreat from our commitment to be the first [country] to regulate mercury emissions from power plants,” said EPA Administrator Mike Leavitt.

More than half the mercury in the environment comes from natural sources. U.S. power plants account for only 1 percent of global environmental mercury, according to the Center for Science and Public Policy. Scientists monitor mercury levels because as mercury settles in oceans and freshwater sources, it is absorbed by fish, and their heightened mercury levels are passed up the food chain to humans.

Although environmental activist groups charge that mercury causes neurological damage in humans, recent studies suggest present mercury levels are not harmful. Scientists at the University of Rochester Medical Center released a comprehensive study last summer concluding environmental mercury is not concentrated enough to pose any risk to humans. Similar findings have been made by the Centers for Disease Control.

“Recent findings by the Centers for Disease Control show that the level of mercury found in humans is far below the threshold of health risk, even for sensitive populations,” noted Harvard-Smithsonian physicist Dr. Willie Soon.

Partisan Response

Although the scientific evidence suggests tough new EPA mercury restrictions may be unnecessary, environmental activist groups and liberal Democrats complained the new regulations were not sufficiently punitive.

Drawing harshest criticism was the cap-and-trade mechanism for reducing emissions. Under that system, plants that efficiently reduce mercury emissions can sell credits for extra reductions they make to plants that can’t make reductions in a cost-efficient manner. Environmental activists and their political allies, who prefer command-and-control regulations rather than market mechanisms, said plants that do not reduce emissions should not be “let off the hook” by buying credits from plants that are more environmentally responsible.

“The reality is that what they are proposing will still allow industry to pollute too much for too long,” said Frank O’Donnell, executive director of Clean Air Trust, an advocacy group. “And that will lead to continuing unnecessary health problems.”

“Once again, the Bush administration is selling out health, our environment, and our economic security to its campaign contributors,” charged former Vermont Governor and Democratic Presidential hopeful Howard Dean.

“Each attempt to roll back environmental standards shows that they support the energy industry and not our environment and the health of our kids and seniors,” added North Carolina Senator John Edwards, also running for the Democrats’ nomination. “That’s the choice this President and his administration are making every day and four more years would be hazardous to our health.”

Leavitt responded by emphasizing the dramatic cuts in mercury emissions required by the new regulations, and noting that Presidential politics make criticisms expected. “It’s obviously part of the environment we’re working in,” said Leavitt. “We’re going to keep focused on the goals we have. It’s part of what every administration has to deal with every four years.”

Getting Results

“We do believe that a type of cap-and-trade approach will allow us to get greater reductions in mercury emissions at lower cost,” said EPA spokeswoman Cynthia Bergman.

Soon, the Harvard-Smithsonian physicist, agreed that cap-and-trade offered a less-expensive option than command-and-control regulations.

“New [mercury] controls on U.S. coal will mean higher energy prices, more dependence on imported natural gas and lost jobs–all to address a public harm that has not been found,” said Soon. “Placing heavier regulatory burdens on already-clean U.S. power plants that will drive up energy prices makes little economic sense. In the face of more realistic and efficient alternatives, it makes little moral or environmental sense as well.”

James M. Taylor is managing editor of Environment & Climate News. His email address is [email protected].