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EPA, environmentalists don't expect mercury guidelines to do much

WASHINGTON—The Bush administration's new limits on mercury pollution from the nation's power plants, which will be unveiled Tuesday, have provoked an unusual agreement: Neither the government nor environmentalists think they'll do much good.

The Bush administration says the problem is a global one that can't be fixed just by reducing power plant emissions. Environmentalists say the Bush plan is too small and too slow.

Even as they prepare to tout their plan as the first to reduce mercury emissions from power plants, the Environmental Protection Agency and the utility industries are warning the public not to expect the reductions to have a big impact. They say mercury remains in ecosystems for so long that getting it out of the air won't remove it from lakes and ponds for years.

EPA officials say the only way to ensure that pregnant women and young children don't get too much mercury, which impairs brain development in fetuses and in the young, is for them to eat less fish.

The EPA's inspector general and the Government Accountability Office issued reports this year that accused officials at the EPA of underestimating how much mercury could be reduced if tough standards were imposed. Government-funded scientists who've evaluated how long mercury persists in the environment say their studies were misinterpreted as well.

While some mercury in the air is natural, a large amount is spewed into the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels. It then drops into waterways, where microbes transform the metal into something that gets into plants and fish and goes up the food chain until it reaches people.

Forty-five states have issued do-not-eat warnings for mercury-laden fish. New research shows it's also a problem for other wildlife, such as loons, and may affect fish's reproductive systems, scientists say.

These risks prompted the EPA to act.

"The U.S. will be the first country to regulate (mercury) emissions from coal-fired power plants," EPA spokeswoman Cynthia Bergman said Monday.

Leaked versions of the Bush plan, obtained and distributed by the environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council, show that the federal government would require mercury emissions to drop to 38 tons a year as early as 2010 from 48 tons now and to 15 tons as early as 2017.

In 2000, the EPA determined that mercury from power plants was a risk to public health. Had the agency followed existing air-toxin regulations instead of coming up with a new program, the existing guidelines would have cut power plant emissions to about 5 tons within three to five years. Two leaked 2001 EPA presentations to the utility industry confirm that.

"The EPA rule is going to allow unnecessarily high levels of toxic mercury for at least another decade," Clean Air Watch President Frank O'Donnell said.

The Bush plan limits how much mercury can come from power plants in each state based on energy production. Because of that, according to the leaked documents, some states will be allowed to spew more mercury rather than less.

California—which has few coal-fired power plants—would be allowed to increase mercury emissions nearly tenfold by 2010, while Utah, Hawaii and New Hampshire could more than triple their mercury pollution.

"The changes in mercury emissions however large or small from U.S. power plants will have only a very small impact on people's exposure to mercury," said Dan Riedinger, spokesman for the Edison Electric Institute, the power industry's lobby.

Riedinger said three-quarters of the mercury deposited in U.S. waterways came from abroad and that 70 percent of the U.S. mercury emissions fell on other countries or the oceans.

The EPA says half the mercury in American waterways is from domestic pollution, with percentages ranging from 5 percent American pollution in the West (because winds come from the West) to more than 95 percent homegrown mercury pollution in the East and Midwest. The East and Midwest are where the biggest problems are.

Using the EPA's modeling, the moderate environmental group Environment Defense said some of the biggest "hot spots" for homegrown mercury are Detroit, Miami, western Pennsylvania, eastern Ohio and New England. Environmental Defense said Detroit may be the worst, and Lydia Wegman, the EPA's chair of air-quality statistics and studies, said that seemed about right.

Another problem, said Phil Angell, a top consultant to the EPA, is that much of the fish Americans eat comes from areas that are polluted by foreign sources, not U.S. power plants.

An EPA statement Monday said: "Until global mercury emissions can be reduced—and more importantly, until mercury concentrations in fish caught and sold globally are reduced—it is important for pregnant women and women of child-bearing age to adhere to the guidelines issued jointly by EPA and FDA and limit their consumption of certain types of fish," such as swordfish, tuna, shark and lobster.

O'Donnell said the EPA's mercury rule won't do much because it's too slow: "The sooner you begin making significant reductions, the sooner we will see significant public health impacts. "

Even if U.S. plants cut mercury emissions, it would take more than a decade—perhaps two—for that to make a difference in mercury levels in ecosystems and fish, Angell said. Angell pointed to a controlled study of mercury levels in the Florida Everglades as proof.

But the chief government scientist for that study said his research was being taken out of context and showed the opposite.

Dave Krabbenhoft, a research hydrologist and mercury team leader for the U.S. Geological Survey, said his study added mercury to 1-meter circles of the Everglades to see how fast it affected fish and the ecosystem, then stopped to see how quickly the areas recovered.

Contrary to what the EPA is claiming, the Everglades study area responded quickly, both in getting more polluted and in becoming cleaner, Krabbenhoft said.

"Within a year you could not see our dose any longer," Krabbenhoft said. "We, in fact, see a very rapid response."


(Editors: Here are the mercury pollution details for Knight Ridder states under the new EPA standards:

States being allowed to increase emissions by 2010 include Florida (28.3 percent), Minnesota (9.9 percent), New Jersey (56 percent), North Dakota (52.7 percent), South Dakota (29.4 percent), South Carolina (8.7 percent) and Missouri (1.5 percent).

States that would have to make dramatic cuts by 2010 include Pennsylvania (a decrease of 64.3 percent), Ohio (42.1 percent), North Carolina (26.3 percent), Georgia (17.6 percent), Kansas (12.4 percent), Kentucky (12.3 percent), Michigan (15.4 percent) and Texas (7.3 percent).)


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050314 MERCURY

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