Mercury Pollution

Clean Air Act Amendments of 1970 and 1977 Set the Stage for the Mercury Calamity of the 21st Century

By Roberta C. Barbalace

April 12, 2005


Mercury Emissions Have Been Increasing Dramatically

According to case studies compiled by Canadian Government scientists, there is general consensus among internationally recognized scientists that annual mercury emissions have been increasing dramatically. The problem did not suddenly appear within the last few years. It has been developing for decades. When the clean air act was amended in 1970 and 1977, it "grandfathered" pre-existing plants from the new regulations. It was assumed that most of these plants would be retired and replaced by plants that met the new standards.

The problem was that it was cheaper to operate old, less efficient plants than to upgrade. According to the grandfather provision, repairs and "minor" updating of a facility could be accomplished without having to meet compliance standards as long as the cost did not exceed 50% of the cost of a new facility. Under current regulations, up to 20% of the cost of new facility can be spent annually on improvements to an old facility without the falling under the new regulations. Coal fired power plants have used this provision to expand their capacity without ever meeting the new standards.

In 2004 the federal government overturned the 2000 rule that would have required a 90 percent reduction by 2007, replacing it with a plan that would require a reduction of mercury emissions by 50 percent over the next 15 years. This new rule would have established a mercury emissions cap for each state. The state would distribute the mercury allowances to utilities that operate coal-fired plants. Utilities could trade allowances with other facilities, thereby ensuring that each plant was in compliance even if they were actually exceeding individual limits.

Members of a coalition opposing the plan have offered another solution - to require Maximum Achievable Control Technologies (MACT) be used on all existing coal-fired plants. All such plants would be required to meet the reduced mercury standards that have been achieved at the top 12% of existing coal-fired plants. Federal Government contends that this would be too costly and would not achieve the goal because most of the mercury emissions are from natural sources (a claim that is contrary to the findings of the most respected scientists in the world). In fact, south Florida was able to reduce its emissions by 90 to 95% in slightly more than a decade by requiring medical and municipal incinerators to install new controls (there are no coal-fired power plants in that part of Florida).

EPA Findings Bypassed in Plan to Reduce Regulations

The EPA's findings concerning the toxicity of mercury were in direct contradiction to the administration's plans to reduce regulations on coal-fired power plants. In fact, the rules finally proposed were found to have at least twelve paragraphs that had been inserted (sometimes verbatim) from a legal document prepared by industrial lawyers. The regulations are supposed to be written by the EPA staff, not industrial lawyers. According to Hamberger and Miller from the Los Angeles Times Bruce C. Buckheit, retired director of the EPA Air Enforcement Division, employees of the EPA were not even allowed to review the regulations before they were released.

Coalitions protesting the reduced regulations have sprung up all over the country. States in the North East have joined forces in unprecedented legal action to require the mid-western states to reduce coal-fired power plant emissions that have increased mercury pollution throughout New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New York and the New England states. What will happen as a result is anybody's guess. It seems likely that if the federal government is forced to require Maximum Achievable Control Technologies be used on all existing coal-fired plants, the cost of power will initially increase. However, such regulations would probably make it more cost effective to build new power plants, in some cases abandoning coal for in favor of other energy sources. Such a move would also stimulate innovative technology that could result in even greater efficiency and reduced production costs. Whether coal fired power plants are forced to comply with the MACT, or whether they are allowed to operate under state mercury emissions cap, the general public will likely be the ones to pay the price. The question is, will they be paying for cleaner and more efficient energy, or will they be paying for educational and medical needs of thousands of children who suffer from the toxic effects of mercury? Or maybe, just maybe the American government will recognize the folly of total dependence upon fossil fuels and shift the emphasis to cleaner alternative energy sources.

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