Federal Regulators Open for Comments on Mercury Pollution

mercury-comment period-epa-power plants-coal plantsThis week the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) opened a public comment period on new rules to limit mercury, arsenic, and other air toxins from oil and coal-burning power plants.  The proposed rule represents what could be the culmination of a 20-year battle to limit toxic compounds from power plant smoke stacks.  Now, with industry groups and their allies in Congress pushing for weakened pollution regulations, environmental groups are pushing to ensure clean air rules are as strong as possible when they finally go into effect. 

In 1990, Congress amended the existing Clean Air Act to mandate that toxic mercury emissions and other compounds hazardous to human health be regulated.  However twenty years of delays have prevented new mercury rules from going into effect for power plants, which represent the single biggest source of mercury in the United States.  First the original Clean Air Act amendments granted the utility industry a ten-year grace period before new power plant regulations went into effect.  Further delays arose when the former Bush administration proposed a mercury standard so weak that environmental groups sued to have it replaced. 

A court decision sided with environmentalists over the Bush standard, and the EPA was ordered to come up with a stronger mercury rule.  When the Obama administration took office, Lisa P. Jackson, the new EPA administrator, began the task of a formulating a new mercury standard.  On March 16th of this year the agency proposed a rule it says will reduce mercury pollution from burning coal by 91%. 

“Today’s announcement is 20 years in the making,” said Lisa Jackson when the proposed standard was announced, “and is a significant milestone in the Clean Air Act’s already unprecedented record of ensuring our children are protected from the damaging effects of toxic air pollution.” 

But the long fight to curb mercury pollution from power plants isn’t over yet.  On Tuesday, as required by law, the EPA opened a 60-day comment period on its proposed rule.  Meanwhile the coal and oil industries have convinced many members of Congress to try to block the new rule going into effect.  Earlier this spring Congress voted on a series of amendments that would have weakened the Clean Air Act, preventing the EPA from enforcing the mercury rule or other public health regulations.  Though each of the anti-Clean Air Act amendments was voted down on that occasion, industry-friendly lawmakers are expected to mount similar offensives in the future.

Environmental and public health groups are also busy, rallying supporters across the country in defense of the Clean Air Act.  When reports surfaced during this spring’s federal budget negotiations that President Obama might be considering a legislative compromise that would reduce the EPA’s authority, over 100,000 people sent emails to the administration is support of upholding the Clean Air Act.  The public outcry worked, and in the end the president re-affirmed his pledge to protect the nation’s most important clean air law.  That’s just one of the instances when activists have rallied recently to support an end to mercury pollution.  If they win, the health impacts will be very real for people living close to dirty power plants. 

“Like so many of us, I live near one of the nation’s 500 coal-fired power plants,” said Melissa Mosher of Sheboygan, Wisconsin, a Sierra Club volunteer and mother of two.  “The Edgewater coal-fired plant [a 770 megawatt plant owned by Wisconsin Power and Light] is just a few miles away from my house, and it’s taken its toll on all of Sheboygan. Pollutants spewing out of the plants have created black streaks in our sand and have contaminated our community.”

The Edgewater plant is one of hundreds of plants across the country that would be required to clean up its smoke stacks if new EPA rules go into effect.  To let the EPA know your thoughts on controlling mercury pollution, submit a comment online before July 5th.

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