Reductions in mercury emissions from U.S. power plants should be attained through cap-and-trade mechanisms, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) officials testified at May 13 hearings before the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works.
During a full day of hearings on the topic, EPA received support from university researchers and power providers. Environmental activist groups opposed the agency’s position.
The committee held the hearings in conjunction with proposed legislation that would address mercury emissions through different strategies. The bills under consideration were S. 906, the Mercury Market Minimization Act of 2007; S. 2643, the Mercury Emissions Control Act; and H.R. 1534, the Mercury Export Ban Act of 2007.
Courts Stepping In
In 2005 EPA promulgated rules allowing for a cap-and-trade system to achieve mercury reductions under the Clean Air Act. A February 2008 District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals opinion, however, nullified the 2005 rule.
EPA Principal Deputy Assistant Administrator Robert Meyers testified the agency is appealing the appellate court decision. Meyers said the court’s decision was wrong and that the Clean Air Act allows cap-and-trade mechanisms.
New Jersey Rules Touted
Lisa Jackson, commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, disagreed with the cap-and-trade approach. She described New Jersey’s mercury rules, which are more stringent than federal standards and implemented through command-and-control regulations. Jackson argued EPA should enact federal rules similar to those in New Jersey.
Jackson reported all New Jersey bodies of water are under a mercury advisory. She said the New Jersey rules, which require 90 percent removal of power plant emissions at all 10 New Jersey coal plants, are working.
Representatives of the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Environmental Defense Fund echoed her sentiments about tightening all emissions and refusing to allow cap-and-trade mechanisms.
Technology Isn’t Ready
Michael Durham, an officer and board member of the Institute of Clean Air Companies; Steven Benson, senior research manager at the University of North Dakota Energy and Environment Research Center; Leonard Levin, technical executive of the Edison Electric Power Research Institute; and Arthur Dungan, president of the Chlorine Institute, all pointed out the advances and challenges of new emission control technologies. Their overall message was that technology cannot yet meet the strict standards the environmental activists seek to impose.
Experts also noted current environmental mercury levels are neither dangerous nor toxic to humans. Others pointed out much of the nation’s ambient mercury is carried here by wind currents from China and would thus be beyond the reach of U.S. rules.
Where’s the Science?
In testimony favoring tighter controls over mercury emissions, witnesses from environmental activist groups argued children and fetuses are put at risk due to mercury exposure. They presented no scientific evidence for this asserted connection.
The lack of evidence went largely unnoticed, as it appeared no one in the room was interested in vetting the science and toxicology behind the asserted health effects, which were the reason to be considering controls in the first place. Instead the focus remained on policymaking and technological advances in mercury emission controls.
Proponents of tougher mercury restrictions often point to two major episodes of extreme mercury exposure to support their argument. The Colex Plant at Oak Ridge, Tennessee released a large amount of mercury into the environment in the 1950s and 1960s, and the Chisso Corporation released a large amount of mercury from the Minamata Bay, Japan facility between 1932 and 1968. Those releases caused health impairments for roughly 3,000 people and resulted in some deaths.
Today, however, U.S. emission limits preclude mercury releases anywhere near what characterized those two major incidents, and the current standards are considered safe by toxicologists.
John Dale Dunn, M.D., J.D. ([email protected]) is a civilian emergency medicine faculty member at the Carl R. Darnall Army Medical Center and policy advisor to The Heartland Institute and the American Council on Science and Health.