Energy & Environment

Capping a Hot Spot

Mercury released by coal-fired power plants is toxic, and some state lawmakers don't see emissions trading as the way to deal with it.
by | June 2006

Maggie Wood Hassan ran for the New Hampshire Senate two years ago pledging to focus on health care and education issues. She wasn't planning to engage in a contentious federal-state face-off over the Bush administration's market-based environmental strategies.

But Hassan's district lies directly downwind from the state's biggest coal-fired power generating station. Ecological studies with loons suggest that mercury the plant releases when coal is burned has been building up in lakes, parks and homes where many of Hassan's constituents live. To ensure such concentrations are cleaned up, Hassan and like-minded legislators in other states have rebelled against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's plan to let coal- burning utilities buy and sell mercury-control credits.

Federal and state cap-and-trade programs have proven their worth in curtailing acid rain and smog-forming discharges from industrial smokestacks. But airborne mercury is even more of a threat to the public health than these pollutants, and some scientific studies indicate there is fallout in Hassan's district from burning coal concentrates 30 or so miles away. "Mercury is a neurotoxin, not just another pollutant," Hassan says. "And I've got a hot spot in my district."

So this spring, Hassan supported a compromise that legislators negotiated with the Public Service Company of New Hampshire that's designed to cut mercury emissions by 80 percent at both of its big coal-fired plants by 2013. In Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota and Pennsylvania, legislators also are pushing for hard-and-fast mercury controls to head off an EPA cap-and-trade plan, which, they say, settles for 70 percent reductions and could take decades to implement.

Across the country, coal-fired power stations release about 50 tons of mercury a year, 25 percent of which EPA estimates settles on the ground or in water. If ingested by people, mercury harms internal organs in adults and damages nervous systems in babies and small children. More than 40 states advise residents to limit how much fish they eat from contaminated lakes and rivers. Clean-air rules have forced municipal incinerators to remove 90 percent of their mercury emissions, but the Bush administration wants to go easier on the coal- burning plants that power the nation's electricity grid.

State air-quality regulators, environmental groups and many legislators are convinced that mercury-emissions trading would perpetuate dangerous levels of downwind concentrations. Connecticut, Massachusetts and New Jersey have ordered 90 percent reductions. This spring, Maryland's General Assembly approved legislation requiring 80 percent cutbacks, and the Minnesota legislature approved 90 percent cutbacks at the state's three biggest coal-fired power plants. To make sure plants actually cut mercury emissions, legislators and regulators have also forbidden utilities within their states from buying credits through EPA's cap-and-trade system.

"Congress has been sitting on their butts on this issue for three years, and the states are not going to wait any longer," says Maryland Delegate James W. Hubbard, who chairs the National Caucus of Environmental Legislators. Such resistance is spreading, and the administration has grown concerned that the potential market for emission credits will dry up if too many state governments rule out mercury trading.

In an unusual step, EPA this April sent a top federal air quality official to Pennsylvania to testify against the state Environmental Protection Department's proposal for 90 percent reductions at the state's 36 coal-fired generating stations. According to trade-press reports, EPA also has begun drafting a regulation that in effect would override states that balk at the federal mercury-trading plan. EPA officials point out that more than 80 percent of U.S. mercury fallout drifts thousands of miles from China and other overseas sources. "Nobody's identified an actual hot spot that the power industry has caused," so that's no reason to reject emissions trading that could achieve mercury-control goals as efficiently as possible, Sam Napolitano, the agency's Clean Air Market Division director, said last December.

New Hampshire's Hassan reaches a different conclusion. While she recently supported the compromise ordering the plant upwind from her district to cut emissions by 80 percent, she drew the line against emissions trading that could let hot spots linger. Loon blood levels may be "like a circumstantial evidence case, but what's the harm that can happen while you wait 15 years for the perfect study?" she says. "It's one thing to trade pollutant credits, but it's another thing to trade toxic credits.

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