Mercury Ruling May Have Little Effect on California

By Published On: February 15, 2008

A federal appeals court has overturned U.S. Environ-mental Protection Agency standards for mercury emissions from coal power plants that serve California and other states. The decision sends the agency back to the drawing board. However, it is not expected to significantly impact coal plants that export power to California because their mercury emissions are relatively low. “What the cap-and-trade proposal did was to allow certain plants to add a neurotoxin to the atmosphere and poison people by the plant,” said Roger Clark, Grand Canyon Trust air and energy programs director. It’s “obvious,” said Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA), “that the Bush Administration’s rule on mercury was designed to protect industry, not the public.” In a February 8 ruling, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit found that the agency’s 2005 decision to regulate mercury emissions from coal plants as a non-hazardous pollutant “was unlawful” on its face. That is because in 2000, the EPA listed coal power plants as a source of hazardous air pollution under section 112 of the federal Clean Air Act. To regulate mercury emissions otherwise, the court said, EPA would have had to make specific findings as part of its 2005 rules, which it did not do. Jeff Quick, Utah State Geologist Office geologist, said that the Intermountain Power Project, which sends coal-fired electricity to Los Angeles, uses low mercury coal. In addition, it has a bag house which removes mercury from the plant’s exhaust stream. Sulfur scrubbers further cut mercury in the plant’s exhaust. Instead of imposing the most stringent emissions standard feasible, as required under section 112, EPA’s 2005 rule placed a cap on mercury emissions from coal plants in each state and then allowed utilities to voluntarily trade emissions rights. The court decision is expected to require the EPA to place coal plants under the tightest mercury emissions standard that is technically feasible, said Ann Weeks, Clean Air Task Force attorney representing numerous environmental organizations that were party to the litigation. Mercury emissions from many Western plants, including ones supplying California, are comparatively low because western coal has less mercury than coal from other parts of the nation. “We probably wouldn’t have had to do anything under the national rule,’ Quick added. “Colorado and Utah have among the lowest mercury contents. It’s a little higher in New Mexico.”

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