DENVER—As the U.S. Senate prepares to vote Monday on whether to overturn an EPA rule on power plant mercury emissions, a new Environment Colorado report shows that while states in the Gulf Coast, Midwest, and Mid-Atlantic regions currently lead the nation in power plant mercury emissions, Colorado has been given the go-ahead to join them.
Projections illustrating the state-by-state increase in mercury emissions as a result of the new mercury rule are staggering. By 2017 Colorado can expect to have 176.6% increase in power plant emissions and be blowing close to 1412 pounds of mercury into the air. Even as regulations “tighten” in 2018 and beyond, the state will still be polluting at levels 9.3% higher than today.
Under the Clean Air Act, sources of hazardous air pollutants, including mercury, are required to install pollution control technology to reduce these toxic emissions by the maximum achievable amount. EPA acknowledged in 2001 that compliance with the law would require reducing power plant mercury emissions by about 90 percent.
In March 2005, however, the EPA issued regulations that allow power plants to avoid the Clean Air Act’s maximum achievable control technology (MACT) requirement. One of these rules, the “delisting rule,” removed power plants from the list of sources subject to MACT standards. This paved the way for a second, industry-favored “cap-and-trade rule” that allows power plants to buy and trade the right to pollute and delays even modest mercury reductions until at least 2018. This new proposal would allow Colorado’s facilities to actually increase their mercury emissions.
“Mercury pollution from power plants is serious business,” said Environment Colorado Associate Pam Kiely. “Scientists have found that just a gram of mercury, about a drop, deposited over the course of a year was enough to contaminate the fish in a Wisconsin lake.”
Mercury is a potent neurotoxin that can affect the brain, heart, and immune system. Developing fetuses and children are especially at risk; even low-level exposure to mercury can cause learning disabilities, developmental delays, lowered IQ, and problems with attention and memory. EPA scientists estimate that one in six women has enough mercury in her body to put her child at risk should she become pregnant. Studies also indicate that mercury exposure is associated with an increased risk of heart attacks in adults.
Power plants are the largest industrial source of U.S. mercury emissions. EPA data show that about one-third of the mercury deposited in the U.S. comes from U.S. power plants alone, and deposition can be much higher near individual plants, since local sources can account for 50-80 percent of mercury deposition at hot spots. Mercury pollution is so pervasive that 44 states have posted mercury-related fish consumption advisories, half of the states for every lake or river. In Colorado, mercury-related fish consumption advisories already cover 17,105 acres of lake in the state. These advisories warn people to avoid or limit their consumption of certain types of fish.
“With this new rule, the EPA is essentially saying that mercury from power plants isn’t toxic,” Kiely said. “That not only defies law and logic, but it’s outrageous.”
Environment Colorado’s “Made in the U.S.A.” uses 2003 data from EPA’s Toxics Release Inventory, the most recent available, to rank power plant mercury emissions by state, county, zip code, facility, and company. Key findings include:
• In Colorado, power plants emitted 343 pounds of mercury in 2003.
• Moffat County led the state in power plant mercury emissions, with 120 pounds, 35 percent of the state’s total power plant mercury emissions, in 2003.
• Tri-State Generation and Transmission’s Craig Station was the largest power plant mercury emitter in the state, with 120 pounds.
At least 16 states have challenged one or both of the rules in court or have petitioned EPA for reconsideration of the delisting rule. Moreover, in June, Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Susan Collins (R-ME) introduced a bipartisan joint resolution against the delisting rule pursuant to the Congressional Review Act, a law that enables Congress to disapprove of federal agency rules using special, expedited procedures. Disapproval of a rule voids the rule, meaning it has no effect. A vote is expected in early September, after the Senate returns from its August recess.
“We urge Senators Allard and Salazar to take action to protect public health by supporting the Leahy-Collins resolution,” Kiely said. “It is long past time for power plants to comply with the law and join other industries in reducing their mercury pollution by 90 percent.”