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EPA rule will limit power-plant mercury

The Environmental Protection Agency today will set the nation's first limits on emissions of toxic mercury from coal-fired power plants, a long-awaited and controversial set of rules with broad implications for human health and wildlife.

The federal agency is pledging to cut mercury emissions 69 percent below 1999 levels by 2018, according to a copy of the plan obtained by the Globe yesterday. The regulation relies on an approach that allows dirtier power plants to avoid emission cuts by buying credits from cleaner power plants. The Bush administration says it is the best way to reduce mercury pollution without placing limits on individual plants, which the utility industry says would be too expensive and require unproven technologies.

Environmentalists and federal watchdogs leveled scathing criticism as details of the regulation became known, alleging that the EPA has relied too heavily on industry input and ignored technology that could more effectively and quickly reduce mercury from power plants. Environmentalists say the plan will allow ''hot spots" of high levels of mercury pollution to persist regionally.

Mercury is considered one of the most poisonous emissions from power plants, able to severely damage the developing brains of fetuses and children. Power plants discharge the metal into the air, where it can travel thousands of miles before settling to the ground and being washed into lakes and streams. In the Northeast, pregnant woman and children are urged not to eat fish from scores of lakes and ponds because the toxic metal can build up in the animals' flesh.

''The US will be the first country to regulate emissions for coal-fired power plants," Cynthia Bergman, a spokeswoman for the EPA, said in an interview yesterday. Confirming that the Clean Air Mercury Rule would be released today, she said the government is limited in what it can do because much of the US mercury problem comes from the consumption of fish caught overseas, where mercury levels are higher. ''This rule is protective," she said. ''It is significant."

A long-simmering debate over the regulation focuses on whether mercury reductions should come from technology at individual plants, which environmentalists favor, or the trading method the EPA will announce today. In the 182-page document, the EPA says its approach is the ''most cost- effective way to achieve the reductions in [mercury] emissions from the power sector."

But environmentalists who have seen the new regulation in nearly final form say it contains an analysis, based on computer modeling, that indicates the promised mercury reductions probably will not be reached in the called-for timetable. While the regulation says phased-in reductions will cut power plant emissions 69 percent by 2018, the analysis states that emissions are expected to reach a 50 percent reduction from 1999 levels by 2020.

''I'm still taken aback about how weak and unlawful the rule is," said John Walke, clean-air director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, which sued the federal government for failing to control mercury from power plants in the early 1990s. More than 500 power plants in the country use coal to generate electricity, and more than 100 others are proposed, according to the Energy Information Administration.

''For a dangerous neurotoxin that poisons children and unborn children, the agency is allowing dirty power plants to pollute at excessive levels for the next two decades," Walke said.

The entire Northeast has long been plagued with mercury contamination, from local power plants and those elsewhere. Last week, a group of 50 federally funded scientists announced that mercury pollution in the Northeast was far more pervasive than first thought, creating hot spots in not only bodies of water, but also on mountaintops and in forests. High mercury levels were found in animals such as songbirds and salamanders, in addition to fish.

Massachusetts has one of the most aggressive plans in the nation to cut mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants, promising a 95 percent reduction below 2000 levels by 2012. To do so, the state is requiring individual power plants to be equipped with mercury-scrubbing technology. Yesterday, state officials questioned why the EPA has not done the same.

''The technology is available," said Arlene O'Donnell, deputy commissioner for the state Department of Environmental Protection, who had not seen the regulation. ''Massachusetts is doing its part to control mercury emissions; it's time for the EPA to establish similar controls for the rest of the country."

Last week, state Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly sued the EPA, saying it was withholding documents that showed more effective alternatives to the EPA's mercury-trading plan. Yesterday he called on the EPA again to hand over the documents.

The new regulation has been criticized by federal watchdogs, including the EPA's inspector general, who last month said senior EPA officials may have been pressured to accept provisions favored by the coal industry. Then earlier this month, the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office criticized the EPA, disagreeing with the agency's analysis that the trading program was more beneficial than mandating scrubbing technology on smokestacks.

But industry representatives yesterday said the trading approach was groundbreaking and would have the least impact on ratepayers. They said the regulation is protective of human health.

''What we have found is that the cap-and-trade proposal would result in reductions in mercury levels in every state," said Dan Riedinger, spokesman for the Edison Electric Institute.

''We certainly think a cap-and-trade approach overall is the best way to go to achieve the greatest possible reductions on customers bills."

The rules come on the heels of the Clean Air Interstate Rule released last week to cap two other forms of air pollution -- nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide -- from power plants in the eastern United States. But while those rules used a similar trading mechanism, environmentalists said mercury's extraordinarily toxic makeup would guarantee that some regions would have unsafe levels of mercury.

''It's outrageous," said Catherine Bowes, Northeast project manager for the National Wildlife Federation, who has closely followed the development of the new regulation. ''It's not about the sum total of mercury; the bigger concern is that big plants that don't reduce emissions will have a severe impact on the local ecosystem."

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