New EPA Rules Take Small Step Forward, Giant Leap Backward, on Mercury

In late August the Environmental Protection Agency quietly approved 13 rules that it claimed will significantly reduce toxic air emissions (see EPA's August 27 press release). According to experts at NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council), two of the rules suggest that EPA is of two minds when it comes to regulating mercury, a neurotoxin that is particularly hazardous to fetuses and young children.

These new rules stemmed from the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990, which require EPA to issue stringent standards, or rules, for 188 hazardous air pollutants from industrial facilities. Specifically, the law requires the agency to set standards that reflect "the maximum degree of reduction in emissions" an industry can achieve.

EPA took a small step in the right direction with respect to mercury emissions from iron and steel plants. (See EPA website for details.) NRDC and other conservation groups presented EPA with evidence that some of these plants melt down scrapped cars, many of which have mercury-containing switches, and demonstrated that the switches could be removed quickly and economically. In response, EPA now will require plants to ensure their scrap metal is free of mercury switches. However, this rule applies to only 10 percent of the nation's iron and steel facilities. NRDC and at least one state, New Jersey, has written to the EPA, urging it to extend the scope of this rule to the currently exempted facilities.

EPA's small step forward comes with a large step back: The agency finalized a seriously deficient new rule for chlorine production facilities. This new rule fails to address probable "lost" mercury pollution from these plants, and it rolls back prior pollution control requirements.

Chlorine manufacturers produce chlorine using "cells" filled with thousands of pounds of mercury. The typical chlorine facility, called a mercury chlor-alkali plant, has 56 cells, each with about 8,000 pounds of mercury, which is used to conduct an electrical charge that extracts chlorine from salt. To put that number in perspective, scientists estimate that deposition of only 1/70th of a teaspoon of mercury a year could be enough to contaminate a 25-acre lake.

Evidence suggests that mercury chlor-alkali plants are major polluters. The industry uses about 100 tons of mercury annually to replenish the amount lost in the manufacturing process, but cannot account for where the "lost" mercury goes. EPA apparently cannot either. The agency concluded in its new rule that "the fate of all the mercury consumed at mercury cell chlor-alkali plants remains somewhat of an enigma." (Click here for details.) NRDC, meanwhile, has urged EPA to require chlorine manufacturers to stop using the mercury cell process.

Instead of addressing the potential public health threat from mercury cells, EPA focused its new rule on controlling a fraction of the chlorine industry's mercury pollution. It merely set standards for vents at these facilities, estimating that they will reduce mercury emissions by 1,286 pounds per year. This amount pales in comparison to the mercury reductions the agency could have achieved by requiring manufacturers to use non-mercury technology, which accounts for nearly 90 percent of chlorine production today.

Not only does the new rule fail to address mercury cell pollution, it weakens prior controls on mercury cell plants. Regulations issued in the early 1970s required these facilities to keep their plant mercury emissions below 2,300 grams per day. The new rule, however, allows them to emit unlimited amounts of toxic mercury. EPA says the rule requires companies to do a better job in identifying and fixing mercury leaks, but the agency cannot quantify any emission reductions from these changes, much less assure the public that cell activities -- especially maintenance -- will not push emissions over the old limit. In light of the evidence that the average plant loses more than 17,000 grams of mercury every day, NRDC says EPA's decision to revoke the pollution cap is irresponsible.

The Natural Resources Defense Council is a national, non-profit organization of scientists, lawyers and environmental specialists dedicated to protecting public health and the environment. Founded in 1970, NRDC has more than 550,000 members nationwide, served from offices in New York, Washington, Los Angeles and San Francisco.