Wisconsin Agency Proposes Mercury Reduction Rules

Published September 1, 2008

Wisconsin’s Natural Resources Board has approved the tightest mercury emission controls in state history, requiring 90 percent reductions by utility companies by 2015.

The rule, which supersedes an order issued by Gov. Jim Doyle (D) in 2006, now goes to the legislature for approval or rejection

With a 7-0 vote, board members said the mandate will lower the risk of heart disease and neurological problems, which they say can result from mercury emitted during the burning of coal, and will reduce contamination in fish.

The board estimated compliance will cost utility companies between $38 million and $91 million a year.

The proposed standards are significantly more restrictive than federal rules already deemed sufficient by the Environmental Protection Agency to address mercury-related health concerns. Wisconsin consumers will pay higher electricity prices if the new standards are approved.

To the Legislature

Business groups say the regulations are unreasonable and overly costly, and they have sued–unsuccessfully–to halt their implementation.

Jim Pugh, public relations spokesman for Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, which sued to block implementation of the new rules, is not optimistic about the legislature putting a halt to the expensive new mandate.

“We have a Republican Assembly, and the Senate is Democrat, … and they’re not having a special meeting” on this ruling, Pugh said. “So it’s going on the books,” he predicted.

Consumers to Pay Price

Mike Bruhn, a spokesman for state Rep. Scott Gunderson (R-Waterford), who chairs the Assembly’s Natural Resources Committee, called the plan costly and arbitrary.

“Everybody wants clean air and everybody wants clean water,” Bruhn told the July 13 Wisconsin State Journal. “But last time I checked, I don’t know too many who don’t have the lights on in their house and aren’t going to use heat in the winter.”

Mercury emission controls have been part of Wisconsin law for nearly four years. The Natural Resources Board first mandated a 75 percent reduction by 2015, which was then lowered to 70 percent, in line with Bush White House recommendations.

Political Factors Prominent

Then politics came into play, Pugh said.

“The state of Wisconsin should have mercury consistent with the limits of national policy,” Pugh said. “But our governor in 2006 [an election year] held a press conference and decided he was going to side with the Sierra Club.”

During his 2006 election campaign, Doyle ordered the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to boost mercury emission reduction requirements to 90 percent by 2018.

The latest rule, which if approved by the legislature would supersede Doyle’s 2006 order, does provide some flexibility. If a utility company agrees to cut nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide emissions as well, the mercury emissions target date can be pushed to 2021.

Controls Unneeded

Some analysts say tighter mercury controls are unnecessary and not based on sound science.

Don Leal, director of research at the Property and Environment Research Center, said it is possible to achieve emission reductions in mercury without strict government controls. Voluntary incentives and research into new technologies would be a better and more cost-effective approach, said Leal.

“You can do it more effectively than requiring or regulating reductions,” Leal said.

Cheryl K. Chumley ([email protected]) is a 2008-09 Phillips Foundation journalism fellow.