Summary of Hearings on Clean Air Issues (11-11-03)
At this hearing on the state of science and technology surrounding the mercury debate, members of the House Science Subcommittee on Environment, Technology and Standards agreed that there is "compelling evidence" of the health effects of mercury contamination. The panel heard from academic, government, industry and environmental experts about the ongoing regulatory and legislative efforts to control mercury emissions from the utility industry. At the same time, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is readying a proposed rule that for the first time will set mercury thresholds for coal- and oil-fired power plants on December 15th.
There is significant debate about how and to what extent mercury emissions should be regulated. Members learned that consumption of fish contaminated with mercury is a serious health threat. Dr. Thomas Burke, Professor of Health Policy and Management at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health emphasized that mercury has been well studied and its potential harmful effects have been well documented in both human and animal studies. He also cited a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistic that 8 percent of U.S. women of childbearing age have mercury blood levels that exceed those considered safe by the EPA. This further underscored testimony the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee heard in July where Deborah Rice, a former EPA senior toxicologist and now an official in the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, said that low levels of methylmercury (the type of mercury that accumulates in the food chain) have been documented in men with cardiovascular disease.
Once the members were satisfied that a health threat exists, they questioned whether mercury deposition is local, regional or global. At issue are the main forms of mercury emitted from smokestacks. Ionic mercury, also known as reactive gaseous mercury (RGM), oxidizes in water and deposits faster and closer to the point of emission. Elemental mercury is capable of traveling great distances before breaking down. Because utility smokestacks give off both RGM and elemental mercury, the emission affects the environment in all three ways. Dr. David Krabbenhoft, Research Hydrologist at the U. S. Geological Survey, testified regarding research in south Florida following regulation of mercury emissions from medical and municipal waste incinerators. He stated, "Over the past 5-6 years, there has been notable decline in fish mercury concentrations observed... to the level of about a 60-70% reduction in fish tissue concentration." He added that the State of Florida has concluded that this reduction is related to the incinerator mercury regulations, but stressed that more research is needed to fully understand the relationship. This seemed to confirm several studies members had read indicating that although depositions can be global, there appears to be a gradient of deposition with the highest deposition downwind and close to the source of emissions.
Krabbenhoft's testimony also invited the members to debate whether slowing emissions of mercury from power plants would actually decrease the mercury levels in fish. Critics of regulation argue that there is so much mercury already in the environment (known as "legacy" mercury) that any reduction in current emission would be inconsequential. However, recent research results suggest that new mercury may be more active than old mercury, indicating that achieving reductions now would have an effect on levels in fish. Dr. Krabbenhoft's testimony about activities in south Florida further buttressed this argument. (An article on Krabbenhoft's research appeared in the August 2003 issue of Geotimes.)
The question then turned to the appropriate levels of reduction. At some plants, mercury removal rates of more than 90 percent have been shown using technologies that are primarily intended to remove other pollutants such as sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and particulate matter. However, the type of coal used largely determines the type of technology needed to remove mercury. Plants that use subbituminous coal (found in the Western U.S.) will not likely see large reductions from existing technologies and will probably have to use a new technology such as activated carbon injection.
Kenneth Colburn, Executive Director of the Northeast States for Coordinated Air Use Management (NESCAUM) argued:"Due to the pace of technology development, the only real remaining barrier to controlling mercury emissions from power plants is not a question of technology; it is a question of will: it is the current absence of the regulatory driver needed to create the opportunity --the demand -- for mercury control technologies to come to market. At this point, coal-fired power plants are not installing aggressive mercury control technologies because they cannot do so; they aren't simply because there is no requirement for them to do so." George Offen, Senior Technical Leader for Air Emissions and Combustion Product Management at the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) agreed with Colburn's statement. He said, "There's no doubt that...when the standard is set the industry will meet it, because they're going to abide by the law. I think the only question that I would raise is at what level and how fast." He added that in the expectation of standards, the industry has been spending quite a bit of money on mercury.
Subcommittee Chairman Vern Ehlers (R-MI) spoke to the technology debate, saying: "It is clear that while current technologies do achieve significant mercury reductions as a co-benefit, we have much to do to develop technologies specific to control mercury. It may take regulation to create a market that will drive commercialization of these technologies. Past experience has certainly demonstrated that major advances in technology development follow regulation in many fields, often at much lower costs than initially projected."
Rep. Mark Udall (D-CO) summed up the hearing: "Clean air is an environmental and public health necessity. In recent years, the federal government and the states have acted to reduce the use of mercury and to control its emission from medical and municipal waste incinerators. Now it is time to move forward with a cost-effective, rational plan to reduce mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants. Controlling emissions will not only clear the air, it will provide us with opportunities to develop, manufacture and market control technologies here and abroad. We are not the only nation that utilizes coal. We should promote these cleaner technologies and take full advantage of the economic opportunities associated with this goal." (11/7/03)
On July 29th, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee heard testimony about the human health effects of mercury emissions. Among the highlights of this hearing, Dr. Gary Myers, pediatric neurologist and professor at the University of Rochester; member of the University of Rochester team that has been studying the human health effects of mercury for nearly 30 years said, We do not believe that there is presently good scientific evidence that moderate fish consumption is harmful to the fetus. However, fish is an important source of protein in many countries and large numbers of mothers around the world rely on fish for proper nutrition. Good maternal nutrition is essential to the babys health. Additionally, there is increasing evidence that the nutrients in fish are important for brain development and perhaps for cardiac and brain function in older individuals.
In trying to answer questions about whether mercury deposits locally or is more of a global problem, Dr. Leonard Levin, technical leader of the Electric Power Research Institute said, "Recent studies by EPRI have shown that the mercury depositing into the U.S. from the atmosphere may originate at very distant points. Model assessments show that, for 3/4 of the area of the continental United States, more than 60% of the mercury received originates outside U.S. borders, from other countries or even other continents. Only 8% of U.S. territory receives 2/3 or more of its mercury from U.S. domestic sources, and less than 1% of U.S. territory gets 80% or more of its mercury from sources within the U.S. One implication of this dichotomy between mercury sources and the U.S. areas impacted is that there may be a management floor for U.S. mercury, a level below which the amount of mercury depositing to the surface cannot be reduced."
For more information about the hearing, click here.
On July 8, 2003, the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Air Quality held a hearing on the Administration's Clear Skies Initiative (CSI). According to the Subcommittee Chair Joe Barton (R-TX), the hearing was the first of many on CSI. The hearing's lone witness, Jeffery Holmstead, testified that CSI will provide great environmental benefits at the lowest possible cost. Some representatives voiced their opinion that CSI does not do enough to reduce emissions. Rep. Edward Markey (D-MA) adapted a Theodore Roosevelt quote, saying that CSI is "regulating softly and carrying a big inhaler." Other members followed that same line of questioning by raising concerns that CSI is less stringent for mercury emissions than other proposed legislation. Holmstead responded to these concerns by reiterating that CSI is a market based plan that greatly reduces emissions and gives flexibility to industries. Rep. Tom Allen (D-ME) asked if the Maximum Achievable Control Technology (MACT) standards for mercury -- scheduled to be released by the EPA in December 2003 -- will be stricter than the regulations in CSI. Holmstead said that he was not sure about the details of the mercury MACT standards.
Reps. John Dingell (D-MI) and Henry Waxman (D-CA) raised concerns
that the EPA has been withholding information about CSI and that the
EPA has not given equal time to other proposed clean air legislation.
Holmstead assured the committee that they have received all the available
information about CSI. He continued saying that the EPA does as much
as possible with the resources they have available.
On June 3, 2003, the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Air Quality held a hearing to discuss the status of the ongoing elimination of methyl bromide (MeBr) under the Montreal Protocol and the Clean Air Act. The subcommittee heard testimony from the Department of State, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Department of Agriculture (USDA), members of the agricultural community, environmentalists, and research scientists. Their testimonies are available online at the committee's website.
The combined testimony of the Department of State, EPA, and USDA answered the question of the phase-out status. By 2003, the use of MeBr should be reduced to 70% of its 1991 levels, in preparation for its total phase-out in 2005. Many members of the agricultural community testified saying that the ban on MeBr would be devastating to their economic well being. For this reason, the Montreal Protocol defines a critical use exemption for MeBr. The exemption applications must be approved by consensus or a vote of 2/3 majority by the 183 nations that approved the protocol. The US applied for 16 crop exemptions (tomatoes, strawberries, peppers, eggplant, and turfgrass to name a few).
The panel was split on the idea of whether there are
alternatives to MeBr. Most of the panel agreed that there is no substitution
for every field and season. Jack Norton, however, testified that there
are comparable alternatives for the big-money crops of tomatoes, strawberries,
and peppers that account for the majority of MeBr use. Overall, Jeffery
Burnam said that he is fully confident in the exemption process and
at the moment there is no need for legislative involvement. Subcommittee
Chairman Joe Barton (R-TX) said that Congress would introduce legislation
if they thought the American public was not getting a fair deal in
The Senate Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Clean Air, Climate Change, and Nuclear Safety held the second in a series of three hearings to consider S. 485, the Clear Skies Act, on May 8, 2003. Following the previous hearing that broadly examined the legislation, this hearing focused specifically on the effect the legislation would have on the natural gas industry. The witnesses testified that the economic consequences of Clear Skies Act would be manageable, and encouraged passage of the Clear Skies Act over competing bills proposing to regulate CO2 emissions.
Kyle McSlarrow, Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy, testified that a recent Energy Information Administration analysis found that natural gas consumption would increase form 35 trillion cubic feet in 2025 to 36 trillion cubic feet under the Clear Skies Act. Also, coal consumption would decrease by 12% in 2025 compared to baseline projections. In response to questions from Senator Tom Carper (D-DE), co-sponsor of the competing S. 843 that includes CO2 regulations, McSlarrow went on to say that including CO2 would place pressure on the natural gas industry at a time when prices are already volatile. Carper responded that any multi-pollutant legislation will result in additional costs, but including CO2 regulations will cost industry only an additional 2%, which he thinks is worth the environmental benefits.
Joel Bluestein, President of Energy and Environmental
Analysis Inc., testified that the natural gas is the fuel of choice,
a tight natural gas market will remain regardless of the regulations,
and massive fuel switching from coal to natural gas on levels
that will threaten the economy has been over exaggerated. He went
on to say that multi-pollutant legislation should encourage a
new generation of coal plants to maintain a diverse fuel supply.
On April 8, 2003, the Senate Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Clean Air, Climate Change, and Nuclear Safety held a hearing to examine S. 485, the Clear Skies Act. The subcommittee heard from the Environmental Protection Agency, industry, labor, and environmental organizations. All of the witnesses agreed the Clean Air Act of 1990 needs to be amended, but how to amend the act has yet to achieve a consensus. The witnesses were concerned with maximizing environmental, health, and economic benefits.
The provisions to regulate mercury emissions raised concern that the Clear Skies Act will lead to power plants switching from coal to natural gas. Sen. Craig Thomas (R-WY) asked Whitman what effect switching from bituminous to sub-bituminous coal as a way to reduce mercury emissions will have on western skies. Whitman replied that the administration does not believe the first phase of the Clear Skies Act will require large investments from power plants. She said the different ranks of coal were taken into account when drafting the bill, and that they anticipate it will lead to a 10% increase in bituminous coal use. Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) asked about the affect on lignite power plants. Jeffrey Holmstead, Assistant Administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation at EPA, said they recognize it is more expensive to remove mercury from lignite, and that was taken into account when developing the allowance system.
There was some discussion as to whether CO2 should be included in a bill to amend the Clean Air Act. Senators James Jeffords (I-VT), co-sponsor of the competing S. 366 that does include CO2 regulations, and Tom Carper (R-DE), who is expected to reintroduce his clean air legislation soon, questioned the panel heavily on the CO2 issue. Full committee chairman James Inhofe (R-OK), a co-sponsor of S. 485, commented that CO2 should not be regulated under the Clean Air Act because it is not a pollutant; Whitman concurred. Hawkins added that uncertainty about global warming policy has caused investors to avoid supporting traditional or advanced coal techniques, and it will stay that way until there is a market incentive to the contrary.
The Subcommittee web
site contains the senators' opening statements and complete
testimonies of the witnesses.
Sources: Hearing testimony.
Contributed by Charna Meth, 2003 Spring Semester Intern; Deric R. Learman, AGI/AIPG Summer 2003 Intern; Emily M. Lehr, AGI Government Affairs Program Staff
Please send any comments or requests for information to AGI Government Affairs Program.
Last updated on November 11, 2003