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New mercury rules announced; levels lag behind current reductions

WASHINGTON—The Bush administration Tuesday told the operators of coal-fired power plants to cut mercury emissions by nearly 22 percent over the next five years, hailing the reductions as the deepest cuts technologically possible for cleansing the air of the neurological toxin.

But nearly a dozen power plants nationwide have done far better already—some cutting mercury emissions by as much as 94 percent_ in test projects paid for by the same Bush administration.

A utility industry official, environmental groups, university researchers, pollution control companies, and even an expert at the Department of Energy all pointed to instances where power plants reduced mercury emissions between 50 and 94 percent at a modest cost.

That's not how the Environmental Protection Agency sees it.

"Over the next five or six years, these are the fastest reductions" possible, EPA air chief Jeffrey Holmstead said, announcing a plan that would limit power plant emissions of mercury from the current level of 48 tons a year to 38 tons annually by 2010.

By 2018, the limit would drop to 15 tons a year.

Holmstead emphasized that not only was this the first time the United States was limiting mercury from power plants, but that America is the first country to limit mercury emissions from power plants despite the fact that much of America's mercury problem comes from other nations, mainly in Asia.

Mercury, which becomes airborne as a pollutant when coal and other substances burn, falls from the atmosphere into lakes and rivers. It is absorbed by microbes, which are in turn eaten by fish. When tainted fish are eaten, it is especially damaging to the brains of developing fetuses and young children.

Holmstead acknowledged that the new mercury power plant rule would not require power plants to adopt any new pollution control technology. That's because the 10-ton reduction of mercury that is mandated is a "co-benefit" or side effect from other air pollution rules governing smog, soot and acid rain that were announced last week.

Holmstead said the reductions mandated for 2010 were set at a level low enough so that additional pollution control equipment would not be needed.

Today's regulation, pollution control experts say, offers little real improvement.

The rule "sets out a plan where no power plant in the country will have to do anything special," said Sid Nelson Jr., president of the pollution control company Sorbent Technologies Corp. of Ohio, which has cut mercury emissions in power plants in Detroit, Charlotte, Milwaukee, rural Kansas and North Dakota. "They will not have to go out of their way to get one ounce of mercury out (of power plants) until 2020."

Earlier versions of the Bush mercury rule had called for cuts to as low as 24 tons. Presentations by Holmstead in 2001 to the utility lobby noted that if EPA had used a different regulation to govern mercury emissions, mercury pollution would drop to only 5 tons in about five years.

That regulation was based on a decision by the Clinton EPA in 2000 to designate mercury an air toxin—a move revoked officially by the Bush EPA Tuesday. Regulating mercury as an air toxin would have required the EPA to set standards based on maximum achievable control technology, which Holmstead's presentation said would have attained the 5-ton level.

The key to the Bush mercury plan is permitting the trading of pollution credits, much like pork belly futures. Power plants that clean up more than required can sell their credits to other utilities that then won't have to clean up as much.

"We don't think it's possible" to go lower than a national 38-ton limit in 2010, Holmstead said at a news conference. "There's a big difference between what can be done at one plant in a ... test and what can be developed in an entire industry."

Frank Maisano, a lobbyist and spokesman for several coal-fired power plant firms, said: "This is pushing the envelope of technological feasibility right now."

Power plant pollution tests nationwide show otherwise.

"We could do better than 21" percent, said Dennis Laudal, a senior researcher at the University of North Dakota's Environmental Research Center, which helped develop technology to reduce mercury emissions. "This is basically what the utility industry had asked for. There's no way around it. That's the way it is. Technologies exist that could control mercury."

Sorbent Technologies' Nelson said, " We've demonstrated at full-scale, over 90 percent (reduction) at costs that are 80 to 90 percent less than people were thinking and it's commercially available."

The Department of Energy over the past six years has spent $60 million to help develop and test those technologies, said Tom Feeley, technology manager for innovations for existing power plants at the energy department.

"We've got a suite of technologies that appear to be very promising," Feeley said Tuesday. "We're now taking them out and operating them on live power plants."

Power plants are worried that the major mercury control technology could hurt other aspects of plant operation, including those that reduce other pollution.

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

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): MERCURY

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

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