EPA Proposal for Easing Controls on Mercury Pollution Brings Protests

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Hotline, Winter 2004

by David Fowler, GASP Board Member

A proposal in December by the Bush-run EPA to dramatically ease plans for reducing mercury pollution by the nation’s 1,100 coal and oil-fired power plants met immediate protests by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and other advocates of stiffer controls.

U.S. EPA Administrator Michael Leavitt, recently appointed to his new job, advocated abandoning his agency’s decision of December 2000, based on its own scientific studies, to apply stiff controls to the nation’s power plants, which emit 48 tons of poisonous mercury annually. That decision, made by the Clinton administration but later endorsed by Leavitt’s predecessor at the EPA, Christine Whitman, had proposed reducing mercury emissions by 90 percent by 2008.

Instead, Leavitt proposed a cap-and-trade system that would allow utilities to swap mercury pollution allowances among plants, thus permitting older facilities with poor controls to continue emitting the poisonous effluent. The proposal envisions reductions of only 30 percent of the nation’s total mercury emissions by 2010 and 70 percent by 2018.

That proposal would also not guarantee any reductions in the more than 7,400 pounds of mercury emissions from older coal-fired power plants in Pennsylvania, which emit more mercury pollution than those in any state but North Carolina and Texas. It would also mean that the Keystone power plant in Armstrong County, which released 1,800 pounds of mercury into the air in 2001, more than any other power plant in the nation, would not be required to reduce such emissions.

Thus the EPA proposal brought an immediate protest by DEP secretary Kathleen McGinty, who called it an “economic blow and a public health disaster.”

McGinty, a White House environmental adviser during the Clinton Administration, said that the EPA’s proposal for controlling the highly poisonous substance should not be governed by a system of trading pollution allowances which might well produce “hot spots” of mercury contamination.

Mercury poisoning of humans comes primarily from eating fish contaminated by fallout from the air and runoff from rainfall. Pregnant women, children, and fishermen are most at risk through brain and nervous system damage to children and heart and immune system damage to adults.

A recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that one in 12 women of child-bearing age in the United States has mercury in her blood above levels that the EPA considers safe. And a recent Food and Drug Administration report recently advised the federal government to issue warnings to pregnant women and children about the risks of eating white, or albacore tuna, which has nearly three times as much mercury as cheaper “light” tuna.