States Approach Deadline for New Mercury Standards

Published October 1, 2006

The rapid approach of a federally mandated deadline for states to adopt new limits on manmade emissions of mercury has state officials around the nation scrambling to decide which standards best suit their constituents’ needs.

Ohio and North Dakota decided in late July to follow standards proposed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Bush Targets Big Reduction

Under a program initiated by the Bush administration, states have until November 17 to decide whether they will adopt new, stricter standards established by EPA, or opt instead for even more stringent requirements. The Bush administration seeks to reduce emissions from coal-fired power plants by 70 percent when the program is fully implemented after 2020.

States choosing to adopt the federal EPA guidelines will allow coal-fired power plants within their borders to buy and sell emissions credits. This “cap-and-trade” program is favored by the Bush administration, which sees cap-and-trade as a more efficient way of achieving mercury reductions than traditional command-and-control regulations.

States Split

Among the states that have opted for the cap-and-trade plan are Indiana, Kentucky, North Dakota, Ohio, and West Virginia.

Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, and Virginia have rejected the cap-and-trade approach and will require mercury emissions within their borders to be reduced faster than under the EPA guidelines.

Many other states have yet to decide, and they are under intense lobbying from industry, environmental groups, and other interested parties.

North Dakota Mirrors EPA

In a July 25 article in the Grand Forks Herald, Tom Bachman, an environmental engineer with the North Dakota Department of Health, said the state will side with the federal EPA. Under the state’s final plan, details of which are still being worked out, North Dakota’s 12 coal-fired power plants will be allowed to emit 1.56 tons of mercury annually from 2010 through 2017, a figure that will drop to 0.62 tons thereafter.

“They [the power plants] would have more than adequate allowances up until 2018, then after that they’re either going to have to buy allowances or reduce actual emissions,” Bachman told the Herald.

Ohio Also on Board

On July 24, Ohio Gov. Bob Taft (R) announced his state would also follow the federal standards.

Environmental activist groups responded with withering criticism. Jack Shaner, a spokesman for the Sierra Club, Ohio Environmental Council, Ohio Public Interest Research Group, and Ohio League of Conservation Voters, said Taft’s plan provides “the bare minimum for Ohio.”

Countering that claim, Ellen Raines, a spokeswoman for Akron’s FirstEnergy Corp., told the Akron Beacon-Journal the cap-and-trade program will give utilities a chance to see how effective the installation of scrubbers and other antipollution equipment will be in cutting mercury emissions. Ohio is a major coal-producing state and derives most of its electricity from coal.

Thompson Shakes Up Conference

The debate over state mercury policies coincided with the eighth annual International Conference on Mercury as a Global Pollutant, held in August in Madison, Wisconsin.

Attended by an array of scientists, environmental officials, and green activists, the conference was set abuzz by comments from former Wisconsin governor Tommy Thompson, who also has served as secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). In an op-ed in the Wisconsin State Journal, Thompson declared, “No scientific study has ever found Americans with unsafe mercury levels from eating ocean fish and seafood.”

Thompson’s statement was controversial because since the late 1990s, environmental groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife, and Environmental Working Group have executed media campaigns aimed at convincing the public that Americans, particularly pregnant women and young children, are at risk from eating seafood containing “dangerous” levels of mercury.

Thompson’s comments were clearly aimed at dispelling such myths.

Power Plants Minuscule Factor

Mercury is a naturally occurring element that is ubiquitous in the environment.

According to data compiled by the U.S. House Resources Committee in its 2005 report, “Mercury in Perspective: Fact and Fiction About the Debate Over Mercury,” most of the mercury in the environment has been released through natural processes. These include surface volcanic eruptions, deep sea vents and volcanic activity, hot springs such as the geyser basins in Yellowstone National Park, erosion, and evaporation from ocean basins, other water bodies, and soils.

Those natural sources account for approximately 61 percent of the annual mercury deposition in the world, according to the House report. Another 37 percent comes from man-made (anthropogenic) sources outside the United States, with the largest contributors being China, India, the European Union, and Zaire.

Anthropogenic sources in the United States account for the remaining 2 percent, with coal-burning power plants responsible for slightly less than one-half of that, or roughly 1 percent of total global mercury deposition.

Bonner R. Cohen ([email protected]) is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research in Washington, DC.

For more information …

“Mercury in Perspective: Fact and Fiction About the Debate Over Mercury,” U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Resources, February 16, 2005, available online at

Dozens of documents addressing mercury in the environment are available through PolicyBot™, The Heartland Institute’s free online research database. Point your Web browser to, click on the PolicyBot™ button, and select the topic/subtopic combination Environment/Mercury.