From Duluth News Tribune:
EPA plan to cut mercury due out today
ENVIRONMENT: The EPA rules are expected to allow power companies to trade pollution “credits” to meet a national goal of cutting emissions in half by 2010.
BY JOHN MYERS
The U.S. government today is expected to announce its first plan to cut toxic mercury pollution from coal-fired power plants.
The new rules are either the first step toward less mercury contamination in fish and people or a major mistake that benefits the nation’s coal industry. It all depends on whom you talk to.
The electric utility industry and Bush administration officials in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are touting the regulations as a realistic way to reduce the mercury produced when coal is burned — the largest source of human-caused mercury in the United States.
The plan is expected to establish a cap/trade system and call for overall mercury reductions of about 50 percent by 2010 and 70 percent by 2018.
Power plants that don’t add pollution control technology soon enough to meet the limits could buy credits from plants that do better than the federal standards. The credits will be traded, putting a market price on the cost of failing to reduce mercury emissions.
A similar plan adopted in 1990 is credited with helping U.S. power plants reduce emissions of sulfur dioxode, which causes acid rain.
“This will be the first regulation ever on power plant mercury emissions. It’s a dramatic step forward in getting mercury under control,” said Frank Maisano, spokesman for the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, a Washington, D.C., industry group that represents coal-burning power plants.
But several environmental experts, scientific groups and even the government’s own nonpartisan General Accountability Office say the new rule doesn’t do enough to solve the mercury problem. The EPA’s own inspector general last month said the administration overlooked health effects in developing the new rules and sided with the utility industry in drafting them.
“It waits too long to require any real mercury reductions. There are too many loopholes that will keep it from protecting people’s health,” said Sarah Welch, mercury expert for the Izaak Walton League of America.
The Izaak Walton League expects the federal plan to be so weak that the group today will propose tough new state legislation in St. Paul that would demand a 90 percent reduction in mercury from Minnesota’s coal-fired plants by 2011.
“It’s clear that the federal rule will do little or nothing to reduce mercury emissions in Minnesota. Our own PCA commissioner said that last summer in a letter to the EPA,” Welch said, referring to Sheryl Corrigan of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. “It’s time to stop burying our head in the sand and time for Minnesota to set an example on this. We can’t wait for some global treaty or a real federal plan…. The health of our people and our fishing tradition and tourism economy depend on it.”
Environmentalists say the cap-and-trade system shouldn’t be used for mercury because the toxic substance will continue to accumulate while many power plants use credits instead of pollution controls to keep operating.
Industry officials say the 90 percent immediate reduction isn’t technologically possible, let alone affordable. And they say any fast-paced effort to curb the mercury problem will damage the U.S. economy.
Because much of the mercury that falls on the United States comes from outside its borders, regulating domestic power plants also won’t solve the overall problem, industry officials say.
“This is a global issue. We can’t solve it all ourselves,” Maisano said.
Coal is the most-used fuel for generating electricity in the United States because it’s abundant and cheap. Cleaner-burning natural gas has been touted as an alternative to coal because little mercury is produced. But gas is in short supply. It currently costs about $1 to produce a million British thermal units from burning coal versus more than $6 from natural gas.
Duluth-based Minnesota Power is watching the new federal regulations with keen interest. Because Minnesotans get most of their electricity from coal, and because Minnesota Power burns western coal that by geological quirk produces more elemental or toxic mercury, the utility probably will end up spending considerable money on new pollution control equipment and/or buying credits from other utilities.
Minnesota Power has 11 coal-fired units at several sites in Northeastern Minnesota and also buys coal-fired electricity from North Dakota.
“We believe that we’ll probably be short on allocations” or credits, said Mike Cashin, Minnesota Power environmental engineer. It will take months to determine how the new rules will affect each utility and even longer before consumers know the effect on their monthly power bill, he said.
Depending on how fast the new rules take effect, and on any legal challenges, Minnesota Power’s customers can expect to be spending at least a little more money for electricity because of the mercury rules. While homeowners won’t have sticker shock, the added cost could hit taconite plants and paper mills hard.
“The industries that use the most electricity in our region are the ones most at risk of global competition. This is going to have an impact on their ability to compete,” Cashin said.
Minnesota Power for years has been experimenting to find a way to reduce mercury from its smokestacks. So far “there’s no silver bullet out there,” Cashin said.