Pennsylvania Implements Severe New Mercury Regulations

Published April 1, 2007

Pennsylvania’s state agency responsible for publishing newly enacted regulations ended a two-month showdown with Gov. Ed Rendell (D) on February 10 by publishing strict mercury reduction rules supported by the governor.

The final hurdle to implementation was acquiescence by two leaders, Sens. Mary Jo White (R-Venango) and Raphael Musto (D-Luzerne) of the Environmental Resources and Energy Committee. Under Pennsylvania law, a proposed regulation can be rejected by the legislature if a committee passes a resolution opposing the regulation and then both chambers agree with the resolution.

White and Musto, who have long opposed the proposed mercury standards as being extremely costly and carrying little if any environment and health benefits, announced in a February 7 letter that they would not use provisions under the Regulatory Review Act to prevent the implementation of the new mercury regulation.

After the February 7 announcement, the Legislative Reference Bureau agreed to publish the new regulation.

$1.7 Billion ‘for Nothing’

“We are going to spend $1.7 billion [in order to comply with the regulation] for nothing,” said Gene Barr, vice president of political and regulatory affairs for the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry. “There are no discernible health benefits for the Pennsylvania rule over the federal rule.”

“No scientific journal has ever found a single person with an unsafe level of mercury from eating fish,” added Barr.

Barr questioned the wisdom of having stricter regulations in Pennsylvania when mercury emissions from plants in Ohio will simply drift across the border and settle in Pennsylvania. “The air that is in Pennsylvania today is the air that was in Ohio yesterday,” said Barr.

Barr also criticized the lack of cap-and-trade flexibility in the Pennsylvania rule. “It’s an effective and efficient tool for lowering emissions.”

Activists Won Battle

The environmental activist group PennFuture filed a petition in 2004 with the state’s Environmental Quality Board (EQB) asking it to enact a regulation requiring coal-fired power plants to reduce mercury admissions by 90 percent.

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) then developed regulations that would require a 90 percent reduction by 2015, with 80 percent of the reductions required by 2010. The state EQB approved the regulation on October 20, 2006.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued its own mercury regulations in 2005. EPA saw no need to reduce emissions by more than 70 percent by 2018. It also adopted a cap-and-trade approach that establishes an industry-wide limit allowing plants that reduce emissions by more than 70 percent to sell credits to others that have a more difficult time cutting emissions.

John Hanger, president of PennFuture, said, “We’re pleased we started this process in 2004, and now two years later there’s a strong regulation,” said Hanger.

Hanger said mercury is a “powerful neurotoxin” and said, “It wouldn’t surprise me if someday we learn that there is no safe level of mercury.”

Steven Milloy, publisher of the environmental science Web site, countered, “There is no evidence that the levels of mercury in the environment are harmful. Most mercury, in fact, is naturally produced.

“Mercury is only harmful in what essentially amount to poisoning cases–isolated incidents like in Minimata Bay, Japan in the 1950s and Iraq in the 1970s,” Milloy explained. “No one is exposed on a typical basis to anywhere close to the levels of mercury as in those two tragic incidents.”

Michael Coulter ([email protected]) teaches political science at Grove City College.