Wednesday, March 17, 2004

Proposed mercury emissions standards called insufficient

By Dan Klepal
The Cincinnati Enquirer

The Ohio chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility said the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's proposed rule to restrict mercury emissions is insufficient to protect the health of children.

Dr. Kim N. Dietrich, a professor of environmental health and pediatrics at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, has spent 27 years studying the human health effects of mercury, particularly on children. He said mercury is especially dangerous to a fetus, because the toxin easily moves from mother to fetus though the placenta.

Mercury retards development of the brain and nervous system. The chemical, which occurs naturally in coal and other geological deposits, is released into the atmosphere when coal is burned to make electricity and stays in the body once it is consumed, usually by eating fish. Coal-fired power plants are the largest source of mercury emissions in the air, according to the U.S. EPA.

Dietrich said EPA's proposal to allow utilities to buy and sell pollution emission credits comes at a time when health studies show serious neurological problems resulting from exposure to low levels of mercury.

The EPA has proposed two alternatives to the rule, with the goal of reducing mercury emissions by 70 percent by 2018. Environmental groups say that's not enough, and that forcing power plants to retroactively install pollution controls to go along with their plant expansions would reduce mercury emissions by 90 percent by 2007.

An EPA spokesman said the agency is taking public comments on the issue until the end of April. The new rule will take effect in December. EPA Administrator Michael O. Leavitt told the New York Times Monday that it could take an extra decade to reduce mercury emissions by 70 percent under the cap-and-trade approach. Leavitt has asked his staff to do more study on the pollution control technologies on the market and their cost.

"The situation now is intolerable," said Glen Brand, Midwest representative for the Sierra Club. "Ohio warns the public to limit their consumption of fish from every local waterway. That's simply not acceptable." The alternative to the rule favored by many environmentalists would require utilities to install the best available pollution control technologies used by the power plants with the lowest emissions in the country.

Brand said the cap-and-trade idea would create hot spots near power plants that purchase the right to pollute more. This is a particularly important decision in Greater Cincinnati, where there are four power plants, in Hamilton, Butler, Warren and Clermont counties. Cinergy also operates power plants in Kentucky and Indiana.

Ohio's coal-fired power plants emitted more than 8,000 pounds of mercury in 2000 - the most of any Great Lakes state, according to EPA statistics. Indiana was second with 5,735 pounds of mercury emitted.


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