Mercury Policy (9-14-05)
Concern over the possible health effects of mercury contamination
is getting increased attention nationwide. Humans are exposed to
mercury primarily through consumption of fish that contain high
levels of mercury from deposition of atmospheric mercury released
by power plants. In 2001, 49 states issued 2,618 fish advisories
due to high mercury concentrations. There are currently no regulations
to control mercury emissions specifically from power plants, but
efforts are underway. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
is expected to propose rules it has been developing since 2000.
Also, the president's Clear Skies Initiative and congressional efforts
to amend the Clean Air Act might reduce mercury emissions from power
plants before the EPA's rules are implemented.
On Tuesday, September 13, 2005, the Senate narrowly
rejected a resolution introduced by Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) asking
the U.S. E.PA. to rewrite a rule change on mercury emissions from
coal-fired power plants. The new mercury rule, which was finalized
last March, removes mercury emissions from power plants from the Clean
Air Act list of hazardous pollutant sources and establishes a cap
and trade program for mercury emissions. Senator Leahy and 34 co-sponsors
claimed that the rule would delay reductions in emissions and could
cause serious health problems, especially for pregnant women and young
children living near power plants.
If the resolution had passed, it would have forced the EPA to rewrite
the rule under the 1995 Congressional Review Act, which gives lawmakers
a guaranteed floor vote for resolutions that challenge federal agency
On March 15, 2005 the EPA acting Administrator Stephen
Johnson signed the Clean Air Mercury Rule, which aims to cut mercury
emissions at U.S. coal-fired power plants in two phases using a cap-and-trade
scheme. The first phase of caps would reduce nation-wide annual emissions
from 48 tons to 38 tons by 2010, and reach these goals as a collateral
beneift of the recently finalized Clean Air Interstate Rule (CAIR),
which will regulate nitrous oxides and sulfur dioxide in eastern U.S.
plants. The second phase of limits would reduce national emissions
to 15 tons per year by 2018, a 70% reduction in total. Some lawmakers,
state officials, and environmentalists are outraged over the rule
and have pledged to block it from taking effect. Allowing utilities
to trade a neurotoxin "is unprecedented and illegal," says
Bill Becker, Executive Director of the State and Territorial Air Pollution
Program Administrators. Environmentalists predict that the trading
of mercury credits will leave many plants unregulated, sacrificing
the health risks of certain local communities to the benefit of industry
interests. According to a Greenwire report, the National Resources
Defense Council also pointed out that EPA's own modelling shows that
mercury emissions won't reach the promised 2018 targets until 2026.
According to Greenwire, several environmental groups and a coalition
of state officials are poised to file law suits on the grounds that
the rule violates an earlier EPA determination, which classified mercury
as a "hazardous air pollutant" that must be regulated at
each of the country's 1,300 plants. To avoid conflict, the Administration
officially overturned this determination, but groups maintain there
is little basis for that decision.
EPA Assistant Administrator Jeffrey Holmstead rebutted
wide-spread skepticism about the rule, insisting that the trading
program would eliminate local mercury "hot spots" because
it is designed to incentivize bigger power plants to overcomply early
and sell credits, according to an in-depth report in Electric
Utility Week. Industry favors the cap-and-trade approach, because
it offers utilities the regulatory certainty they need to control
emissions at a reasonable expense and without litigation delays. But
environmental groups point to two accountability studies by the EPA
Inspector General and the Government Accountability Office, that suggest
EPA rulemakers insufficiently considered public health risks. Concerned
about these shortcomings, certain members of both the House and Senate
have expressed their disappointment with the ruling and continue to
devise plans to thwart it. (3/21/05)
On February 16, 2005 a new report released by House
Resources Committee Chairman Richard W. Pombo (R-CA) and Energy and
Mineral Resources Subcommittee Chairman Jim Gibbons (R-NV) challenged
the basis for concerns over fish consumption and mercury sourced from
U.S. coal-fired power plants. Entitled Mercury
in Perspective: Fact and Fiction About the Debate Over Mercury,
the paper outlines federally and privately sponsored research, highlighting
their findings that U.S. power plants account for less than 1% of
global mercury emissions, and that no direct connection has been proven
between U.S. power plant emissions and mercury accumulation in fish.
The report primarily aims to correct the public perception that mercury
is an increasing threat, emphasizing that mercury emissions in the
U.S. have declined since 1990 due to strict regulations of waste combusters
and mining operations, deeming controls on coal-fired power plants
less necessary. Featuring studies that downplay the threat of fish
consumption to public health, the report recommends a revision of
the EPA mercury Reference Dose, and endorses the phased cap-and-trade
approach as proposed in the Clear Skies bill.
The report comes two weeks before a scheduled mark-up
of Clear-Skies and an EPA rulemaking scheduled for March 15th. It
also follows on the heals of an EPA Inspector General report released
February 3, 2005 which claimed that the proposed EPA rule, which includes
a cap-and-trade option, was unduly influenced by the Administration's
political goals and violated the Clean Air Act. (2/24/05)
In response to members of the Senate Environment and Public Works
Committee, the U.S. Enviornmental Protection Agency (EPA) Inspector
General issued a 54-page
report on February 3, 2005. The Senators had asked the Inspector
General to investigate the rule-making process for mercury pollution
limits under development by the EPA. There is concern about whether
the 2 different approaches, a cap-and-trade program (proposed in the
Clear Skies legislation) or a maximum achievable control technology
(MACT; described in the Clean Air Act), were being adequately and
fairly considered to develop these rules.
The Inspector General concluded that EPA is developing regulations
that would require a 34 ton annual limit on mercury based on a cap-and-trade
program that might also leave some regional hot spots of higher levels
of mercury. In addition, EPA has not conducted a complete analysis
of the cost-effectiveness of the alternative MACT approach and thus
has not fairly considered all of their options. The proposed rule
violates the Clean Air Act which mandates that toxic levels be reduced
to the level that the top 12% of current high-performance units can
achieve. The EPA has also not considered the effects of the proposed
new rules on the health of children.
The Inspector General summarized their report in a press
statement: "While we are not advocating one regulatory approach
over another, we recommend that EPA conduct sufficient analysis to
better ensure that the approach it chooses would accomplish the lowest
achievable emissions levels in the shortest time possible."
These problems with the EPA rule-making process could lead to further
litigation by environmental groups, who have already voiced objections.
According to Greenwire, John Walke of the Natural Resources Defense
Council called the report a stinging indictment of the administration's
effort to advance a biased mercury plan. "This report absolutely
bolsters our case," said Walke in an interview with Greenwire.
"It shows how politicized and arbitrary the rule development
process was, which is precisely the type of facts that lead courts
to strike down agency action."
The EPA rules must be finalized by March 15, 2005 and must abide
by the Clean Air Act unless any version of the Clear Skies Initiative
is passed by Congress before that date. For more information on actions
and hearings in January 2005 related to the Clear Skies Initiative
in the Senate please see http://www.agiweb.org/gap/legis109/cleanair.html
As the number of states with fish advisories continues to climb,
an improved understanding of the biogeochemical cycle of mercury
through atmospheric, aquatic, and biological systems becomes ever
more critical in crafting policy affecting water and air quality.
Mercury is naturally released into the biosphere through volcanoes,
geothermal springs, geologic deposits, and oceans. Anthropogenic
sources, which include waste incinerators, wastewater discharges,
mining, and power plants (most significantly coal-fired power plants),
have nearly doubled the natural amount of atmospheric mercury since
the beginning of the industrial age.
After being released into the environment, mercury does not usually
remain confined around single point sources. Instead the majority
of mercury is released into the air (usually in elemental form)
and then dispersed on local, regional, and global scales before
being deposited. It is estimated that 40% of mercury deposited in
the US originated outside of the country. After deposition, sulfur-reducing
bacteria transform mercury into the organic methylmercury through
a process called methylation.
The amount of mercury transformed to methylmercury, and vise versa,
depends on several factors including the concentration of dissolved
organic carbon and pH.
Methylmercury is the most toxic form of mercury. It both bioaccumulates
(absorbed more quickly than eliminated) and biomagnifies (concentration
increases up the food chain). Methylmercury can cause brain damage,
nervous disorders, tremors, vision, and memory loss. Some evidence
also links methylmercury to cardiovascular, thyroid, and digestive
problems. Methylmercury is most commonly ingested by humans through
fish consumption. Inorganic mercury is less efficiently absorbed
by the body than methylmercury, and thus does not tend to cause
serious health problems.
Mercury emissions from municipal waste combustors, medical waste
incinerators, and hazardous waste combustors are currently regulated,
but other large sources are currently not controlled. In adhering
to the Clean Air Act's requirement to assess toxic emissions from
power plants, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
released two reports in 1997 and 1998 that specifically identified
mercury as the toxic posing the greatest concern to public health.
The reports also determined that coal-fired power plants released
the greatest quantities of mercury, oil-fired plants released enough
to require regulations, and natural gas-fired plants release negligible
amounts. In December 2004, the EPA finalized rules to reduce mercury
emissions from coal-fired power plants to be implemented by December
In February 2003, mercury contamination re-emerged as an issue on
Capitol Hill after the release of two reports indicating mercury levels
are higher -- and the resulting health effects more severe -- than
previously thought. The first report, America's
Children and the Environment released by the EPA, found that
1 in 12 women in the U.S. had mercury levels at the upper limit of
what is considered safe, placing 300,000 children at risk for brain
damage. Another report
by the United Nations Environmental Program called for significant
and rapid cuts to global mercury emissions after finding that coal-fired
power plants in Asia and Africa especially account for nearly 70%
of all atmospheric mercury, deposited globally.
In December, 2003 the EPA proposed a new cap-and-trade
rule to curb mercury emissions, a policy that reflected the Bush Administration's
preference of market based approaches to environmental regulation.
It soon came under fire as insufficient to lower atmospheric mercury
levels. In contrast to across-the-board restrictions on individual
power plants ("Maximum Achievable Control Technology" or
MACT), the alternative policy, the ability to trade pollution "credits"
would create highly toxic localized environments. On several separate
occasions in January, April and June of 2004, members of congress
from both parties as well as state governments petitioned or filed
complaints against the EPA and the Bush Administration, asking them
to reconsider the new mercury rule. Many opponents argued the rule
violated the Clean Air Act, while others voiced concern that industry
interests were too prioritized or propsed a regional, rather than
national, cap-and-trade scheme. Read more about Clear Skies: http://www.agiweb.org/gap/legis108/cleanair.html.
On August, 2004, EPA officials released a major announcement that
mercury contamination in the nation's waters have reached an all-time
high. EPA Administrator Mike Leavitt attributed these statistics to
the rise in assessment of the nation's waters through monitoring and
fish sampling. He also stated that manmade mercury emissions are decreasing,
with power plant emissions dropping 45 percent between 1990 and 1999.
Rising levels, he explained, are partly due to pollution from other
countries, specifically Asia, which accounted for 53 percent of global
mercury emissions in 1995.
Sources: Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Congressional briefings,
EPA, Food and Drug Administration, Greenwire, USGS, Water Environmental
Federation, House Science Committee website, Environment and Energy
Daily, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Platts Electric Utility
Week, and hearing testimony.
Contributed by Katie Ackerly, AGI/AAPG 2005 Spring Semester Intern;
Emily Lehr Wallace, AGI Government Affairs Program Staff; Linda Rowan,
AGI Director of Government Affairs
Please send any comments or requests for information to AGI Government Affairs Program.
Last updated on September 14, 2005