States Take Up Mercury Emission Reductions

Published November 1, 2004

Some environmental activist groups, unwilling to wait for EPA to finalize its rules and opposed to the cap-and-trade approach the agency favors, are stepping up their efforts to lobby state legislatures, where they hope to get passed tough mercury rules that might preempt federal regulation.

The state-level mercury debate is particularly intense in Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Wisconsin.

Pennsylvania Activists Seek to Preempt Feds

Pennsylvania lawmakers are facing pressure from activists to impose stringent mercury restrictions on power companies. Penn Future, an anti-mercury activist group with the motto, “We refuse to accept our current environmental condition and dedicate ourselves to changing it,” is pressuring the state legislature not only to issue mercury standards in advance of federal action, but to preempt whatever federal rules are ultimately issued.

“Penn Future has formally petitioned the Pennsylvania Environmental Quality Board (EQB) to adopt new rules to require power plants to reduce their emissions of toxic mercury pollution by 90% by 2007,” states the group’s Web site.

Moreover, Penn Future urges the legislature simply to disregard the prohibitive costs of such a standard. “Whatever the cost is, it’s unavoidable,” Penn Future President John Hanger told the Harrisburg Patriot on August 10. “We have so much mercury within our borders. It’s past time to get going,” asserted Hanger.

Analysts contend the proposed restrictions would not only be expensive, but would have little impact on the state’s environment. Connie Walker, a spokesperson for Pennsylvania Power and Light, observed in the Patriot that 75 percent of U.S. mercury pollution comes from outside the nation’s borders. Walker further noted that power plants are responsible for just 10 percent of U.S. mercury pollution and merely 1 percent worldwide.

“State regulations will have little impact on lakes, streams, and fish in Pennsylvania,” Walker told the Patriot. “They will put us at a competitive disadvantage and increase the cost of electricity.”

Illinois Study Counters Activists’ Demands

In Illinois, activist groups are urging Governor Rod Blagojevich (D) to impose the strictest possible mercury standards on the state’s power suppliers. For example, the Illinois Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) is pushing for a 90 percent reduction in mercury emissions by 2010, regardless of cost.

PIRG supports its demand by asserting “the vast bulk of mercury loading into our waterways comes from coal-burning electric power plants.” Scientists dispute that claim.

A recent study by Derek Winstanley and Edward Krug, published in the journal Hydrology and Earth System Science, concluded most of the mercury found in the environment comes from natural rather than manmade sources.

According to a review of the Winstanley and Krug study in Electricity Daily, “The background for the study is a longstanding problem with the theory that coal-fired power plant emissions are the leading cause of mercury in fish, namely that there is no correlation between power plant locations and high mercury levels. To overcome this lack of evidence the proponents of the theory, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, have claimed that mercury circulates nationally and globally via a process of general atmospheric deposition.”

The Winstanley and Krug study tested the EPA theory by comparing human-source mercury emissions with newly measured environmental mercury levels globally, nationally, and in Illinois. The study showed most mercury emissions are natural in origin: “Hg [mercury] concentrations and contents of Illinois and USA soils are too great to be accounted for by atmospheric anthropogenic [man-made] Hg deposition,” they conclude. As a result, notes Electricity Daily, “reducing the estimated 50 tons of mercury emitted by U.S. coal fired power plants might have little or no effect on environmental mercury levels.”

Winstanley and Krug note, “The reported average Hg concentration of USA soils is about 2.5 times greater than that of the Illinois soils, whereas average total USA atmospheric Hg deposition is reported to be about half that of Illinois.” In other words, Illinois has twice as much mercury deposition as the U.S. average, but mercury concentration in Illinois soils is about 40 percent lower than in the U.S. on average. For that reason, Winstanley and Krug write, “The hypothesis that most Hg in Illinois and the USA soils is of anthropogenic origin is rejected.”

Wisconsin Attempts Bipartisan Solution

A model for Illinois and Pennsylvania may be found in Wisconsin.

After more than a year of debate and compromise, on June 23 the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) approved state-level mercury regulations that have gained the support of both environmental activist groups and power companies, as well as bipartisan support in the state legislature. The June 24 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel noted, “On Wednesday [June 23], business groups and environmentalists told the [NRDC policy-setting board] that while they had reservations, they backed the mercury-reduction package.”

The measure is currently under consideration by the state legislature.

Under the Wisconsin plan, coal-burning plants are not themselves required to meet specific emission reduction targets. Rather, the measure requires that a utility’s overall mercury emissions in the state be cut by 40 percent by 2010 and 75 percent by 2015.

The Wisconsin State Journal explained on June 21, “while the [Bush] administration’s plan would require utilities to meet the target plant by plant, the state regulations adopt an overall target. That means utilities can decide to make reductions according to the plants where it would be most cost-effective, as long as the overall reduction is met.”

As a result, said the Journal, “the state’s plan is an improvement over a federal plan under development in the Bush administration.”

The Wisconsin measure also specifies that the state plan will not supercede or conflict with the rules ultimately issued by the federal government. Utility companies were particularly worried they would have to walk a tightrope between competing federal and state regulations. That concern was among the key reasons the Wisconsin legislature rejected in 2003 a similar DNR plan to cut mercury emissions.

The new plan provides that state regulations must be changed to reflect federal regulations. Accordingly, Wisconsin will act sooner than the federal government in reducing mercury emissions, will provide important guidance to the federal government and other states regarding how a bipartisan mercury reduction plan might work, and yet will ultimately fall in line with federal standards.

“This was done to clarify for the affected industries that they won’t have to have two rules to comply with,” said Lloyd Eagan, director of Wisconsin DNR’s air management bureau, in the June 24 St. Paul Pioneer Press.

That concession will likely be the key to gaining state legislators’ approval of the currently pending measure. Wisconsin’s largest business group, Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce (WMC), considers mercury a federal issue due to the ubiquitous nature of environmental mercury. The group opposed last year’s proposal and was urging legislators not to enact a plan that would precede and preempt federal regulation. The new proposal’s deference to federal legislation has significantly softened opposition to the state-specific plan.

“The bottom line is that we were looking for certainty,” Jeff Schoepke, WMC’s director of environmental policy, told the June 24 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. The newspaper emphasized that WMC members did not want to have to adhere to two sets of emissions regulations.

“That’s the big one,” said State Representative DuWayne Johnsrud (R-Eastman), chairman of the Assembly Natural Resources Committee.

According to the June 25 Greenwire, Wisconsin DNR officials estimate the new rules will cost approximately $100 million. Industry officials warn the actual costs will be much higher. The June 24 Journal Sentinel article noted the costs will likely be passed on to consumers in the form of higher utility bills.

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

For more information …

The study by Derek Winstanley and Edward Krug, published in the journal Hydrology and Earth System Science, is available online at