States Challenge New Mercury Rules
By Eric Kelderman, Staff Writer
Several states are mounting legal and legislative challenges to new federal rules on mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants, charging that relaxed standards ignore serious health hazards and undermine their own environmental efforts.
The resistance is putting states, many downwind from out-of-state polluters, on the forefront of opposition to new Environmental Protection Agency rules on mercury pollution. The federal rules, issued March 15, stretch out the deadline for power plants to cut emissions of mercury, a neurotoxin that can cause brain damage in developing infants and children and that has poisoned fish in 45 states.
Massachusetts filed suit March 10 in federal court in Boston, claiming the EPA is improperly withholding information that would warrant stronger limits on mercury pollution. Massachusetts also has joined in two other lawsuits filed by attorneys general in eight other states seeking to overturn the EPA's regulatory scheme. California, Connecticut, Maine, New Hampshire, New Mexico, New York and Vermont are uniting in that legal challenge, filed March 29, when the new rules were published in the federal register.
Some of those same states are simply opting out of the federal rules, which they consider too lenient. Environmental officials in at least three states - Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Jersey - have declared they will enforce stricter state limits on mercury that state lawmakers or regulators already have enacted.
New Hampshire took steps in that direction last week when its state Senate passed a bill, which now goes to the House, to impose stricter mercury cutbacks than the federal government. Similar legislation has been introduced in at least five other states this year, according to Adam Schafer, a spokesman for the nonprofit National Caucus of Environmental Legislators.
Wisconsin, however, has decided to match the federal standards, which are weaker than state regulations in place. Lloyd Eagan, an air quality researcher at the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, said the lower federal standards will require the state's power plants to reduce emissions by 21 percent over five years, instead of by 40 percent under state regulations.
The EPA's rules give power plants until 2018 to reduce 70 percent of the 48 tons of airborne mercury they produce annually. The new regulations roll back a previous standard that required a 90 percent reduction of mercury emissions by 2008.
The rules also set up a national trading system that allows a power plant that cuts more pollution than required by federal standards in one state to sell credits for mercury cutbacks to a power plant in another state that then isn't required to make cuts itself.
Among the chief complaints of state officials and environmentalists is that the new requirements are not applied equally and are inadequate for a pollutant with such potent health effects.
While most states will have to enforce cuts in mercury, power plants in 19 states will be allowed to increase the amount of the toxic metal they emit for the next dozen years, according to EPA figures. Five states will be able to increase mercury emissions through a final deadline of 2018. And airborne mercury will continue to drift across borders, polluting states that set a stricter standard, said Edmund Coletta, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection.
"Our concern is that 70 to 75 percent of the mercury that falls [in Massachusetts] comes from out of state," Coletta said. In 2003, the department approved rules to cut mercury emissions from power plants 85 percent by Oct.1, 2006.
Bill Becker, executive director of the State and Territorial Air Pollution Program Administrators, said that the new plan creates "serious inequities" and that many states still will be allowed to produce high levels of mercury,
For example, the nation's No. 1 producer of mercury from power plants is Texas, which annually pumps 10,045 pounds of the toxin into the air. Under the new EPA rule, Texas will have to reduce its mercury emissions 7.3 percent by 2010. But Pennsylvania, which produces 9,958 pounds of mercury per year, the second highest amount in the nation, will have to reduce emissions by 64 percent over the same period.
Power producers in North Dakota, which ranks 17th among states with annual mercury emissions of 2,048 pounds, can emit up to 52 percent more mercury between 2010 and 2017. But they must reduce that to 1,236 pounds of mercury by the final deadline of 2018.
The variations are due to the different kinds of coal that power plants?use, said an EPA spokeswoman. In addition, the formula for state mercury allowances includes the expectation that energy production will have to grow in some states, she said.