EPA Rule Fails to Adequately Protect Public Health, Violates Law, Says NRDC

WASHINGTON (March 15, 2005) -- The Environmental Protection Agency today issued a rule giving electric utilities a free pass from controlling their mercury pollution for more than a decade, according to NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council). The rule violates the Clean Air Act by failing to place stringent controls on a dangerous pollutant that especially threatens women and children. It also puts into place a pollution trading scheme that will allow power plants to emit far more mercury for much longer than the law permits.

"The EPA's rule is illegal, irresponsible, and breaks the promise the agency made five years ago to slash hazardous pollutants, including mercury, from coal-burning power plants," said John Walke, director of NRDC's Clean Air Program. "Most important, it blatantly disregards the threat mercury poses to our children. Failing to clean up mercury pollution sentences them to a life of lost opportunities." (A settlement agreement with NRDC required EPA to adopt by today Clean Air Act rules requiring maximum achievable mercury reductions in hazardous air pollution from electric power plants.)

Like lead, mercury is a dangerous poison. It is toxic to infants' developing nervous systems, and several studies have linked mercury exposure to cardiovascular disease. At least 44 states have issued warnings urging residents to avoid or limit their consumption of certain fish caught in local waters. Meanwhile, the federal government has issued warnings recommending children and women of childbearing age to avoid certain fish altogether, and to limit their fish consumption to two meals of low-mercury fish per week.

Recognizing mercury's health risks, the public's widespread exposure to it, and the fact that power plants are the largest remaining unregulated source of mercury pollution, EPA in 2000 found that "mercury emissions from electric utility steam generating units are considered a threat to public health and the environment," and decided to require maximum achievable controls by 2008.

Today, EPA overturned that prior determination. Instead of aggressively curbing power plant mercury pollution, it now maintains that a rule it issued last week requiring states to cut emissions of nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide will have the side benefit of reducing power plant mercury pollution. "Essentially, the agency adopted a 'do-nothing' approach to mercury for the next 12 years," said Walke.

In place of stringent controls, the agency today created a pollution trading scheme -- the first ever such market for a toxin -- that EPA predicts will only reduce pollution by 50 percent in 2020. The agency could not even provide a date after 2020 when power plants would actually achieve EPA's 70 percent reduction goal, a cut the agency could easily require now, according to NRDC.

"The EPA's pollution trading scheme is a stalling tactic," said Jon Devine, an attorney with NRDC's Health and Environment Program. "It uses the label of pollution trading as cover to allow power plants to spew excessive mercury pollution for more than 20 years." In December, 2001, EPA staff reached a preliminary determination that requiring maximum achievable mercury emissions reduction would result in a 90 percent cut within three years, from approximately 50 tons to 5 tons annually. Today's rule will permit power plants to emit 38 tons of mercury until 2018.

One of the reasons the Bush administration has offered for not aggressively curbing U.S. power plant mercury pollution is that mercury is a global problem. Mercury is a global problem, but any suggestion that U.S. power plant pollution therefore is not a threat to public health is wrong, according to NRDC. Recent studies have reported that as much as 60 percent to 80 percent of mercury deposition in some regions in the United States is due to domestic air pollution.

More important, the Bush administration recently blocked international efforts to limit mercury pollution and trade at a United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) conference in Nairobi. (For more information, go to http://www.nrdc.org/media/pressreleases/050225a.asp.)

"The Bush administration is pointing to mercury pollution outside of our borders as the rationale for not aggressively curbing power plant pollution within our own country," said Walke. "Yet just last month the United States bullied the international community into doing nothing besides meaningless voluntary partnerships with industry. The Bush administration is speaking out of both sides of its mouth and making no commitment to solving the mercury problem and protecting public health."