EPA to Cut Mercury Emissions from Power Plants

WASHINGTON, DC, December 14, 2000 (ENS) - For the first time in the United States, coal fired power plants may have to reduce their emissions of mercury. Environmental Protection Agency administrator Carol Browner today announced that the Clinton administration will require the reductions to protect public health and the environment.

The agency intends to propose regulations by 2003 and issue final rules by 2004.

Power plants are largest source of mercury emissions in America. Some 400 coal burning power plants in 43 states are emitting an estimated 98,000 pounds of mercury into the air each year.

Today EPA is posting, on its website, mercury emissions from every coal fired power plant in the country.

power plant

Coal burning power plants spew hundreds of pounds of mercury into the air each year. (Two photos by Carole Swinehart, courtesy Michigan Sea Extension)
After extensive study, EPA determined "mercury emissions from power plants pose significant hazards to public health."

"Mercury from power plants settles over waterways, polluting rivers and lakes, and contaminating fish. Exposure to mercury poses real risks to public health, especially to children and developing fetuses," Browner said. "The greatest source of mercury emissions is power plants, and they have never been required to control these emissions before now."

Exposure to mercury has been associated with both neurological and developmental damage in humans. The developing fetus is the most sensitive to mercury's effects, which include damage to nervous system development.

People are exposed to mercury primarily through eating fish that have been contaminated when mercury from power plants and other sources is deposited to water bodies. Once mercury enters water, biological processes can transform it into methylmercury, a highly toxic form of mercury that builds up in animal and human tissues. EPA recommends that subsistence fisherman, pregnant women, and others should always heed state fishing advisories.

Under the Clean Air Act, EPA is required to study toxic air pollution from power plants in order to determine if additional regulations are necessary in order to protect public health. EPA reported its study to Congress in February 1998. That study concluded that of all toxic pollution examined, mercury posed the greatest concern to public health. An earlier study concluded that the largest source of human-made mercury pollution in America was coal fired power plants.

utility

Many of the worst mercury polluters are also accused by the EPA of illegally upgrading without installing pollution controls
After completion of the study, the Clean Air Act required EPA to determine whether to proceed with the development of regulations. Today, EPA is announcing that it has affirmatively decided that mercury air emissions from power plants should be regulated, because mercury poses the greatest hazards to public health.

EPA will begin developing regulations shortly and will propose regulations by December 2003. Industry, the public, and state, local and tribal governments will have an opportunity to participate in the process. Then, EPA will issue final regulations by December 2004.

The Clinton administration has reduced allowable emissions from municipal waste combustors, medical waste incinerators and hazardous waste combustors. When fully implemented in 2005, the existing rules will reduce total human caused mercury emissions by nearly 50 percent from 1990 levels nationwide.

On November 11, President Clinton called for a dramatic new approach to reduce air pollution from America's power plants. The President highlighted the benefits of adopting a combined strategy to address all of the major pollutants emitted by power plants, including mercury, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and carbon dioxide.

As the Clean Air Act requires, the regulatory process to control mercury will proceed under current law. At the same time, the administration encourages the Executive Branch and the Congress to work toward legislating a comprehensive four pollutant approach, which will benefit the public health, the environment, and the economy.

A November 1999 report by a coalition of environmental groups was the first to document the amount of mercury pollution generated by individual electric power companies nationwide. The report, "Mercury Falling: An Analysis of Mercury Pollution from Coal Burning Power Plants," was jointly authored by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), Clean Air Network (CAN) and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

The groups analyzed the results of mercury coal sampling conducted by power companies from January 1999 through June 1999. The utilities were required to sample mercury in the coal they burned in 1999 due to an NRDC lawsuit filed in 1993.

The four biggest mercury polluters, according to the report, are the Southern Company, American Electric Power, Edison International and the Tennessee Valley Authority. These companies accounted for nearly 20 percent of all power plant mercury pollution in the U.S in 1999.

Today's decision is accessible immediately on EPA's mercury web site at: http://www.epa.gov/mercury