Amid Rising Concern About Mercury, EPA Sets New Rules That Allow Emissions Trading by Industry

On March 15th 2005, the Environmental Protection Agency issued a rule that essentially gives electric utilities a free pass from controlling their mercury pollution for more than a decade.

The rule violates the Clean Air Act by failing to place stringent controls on a dangerous pollutant that especially threatens women and children. It also puts into place a pollution trading scheme that will allow power plants to emit far more mercury for much longer than the law permits.

In place of stringent controls, the agency created a pollution trading scheme— the first ever such market for a toxin —that EPA predicts will only reduce pollution by 50 percent in 2020. The agency could not even provide a date after 2020 when power plants would actually achieve EPA’s 70 percent reduction goal, a cut the agency could easily require now, according to many environmental groups.

A recently released study by scientists at the Mount Sinai Center for Children’s Health and the Environment in New York reported that reductions in IQ due to mercury pollution affect between 300,000 and 600,000 American children each year and will cost the United States an estimated $8.7 billion in lost earnings annually (range: $2.2-$43.8 billion).

The Mount Sinai study, ” Public Health and Economic Consequences of Methyl mercury Toxicity to the Developing Brain,” also claims that the loss of IQ due to methyl mercury toxicity affects between ten and fifteen percent of the four million children born in America each year. While not all of this damage can be prevented, the study found that coal-fired power plants which produce 41 percent of mercury emissions nationwide cause some $1.3 billion of the economic loss.

The new mercury regulations – like the Bush administration’s general approach to reducing air pollution – include a cap-and-trade program that allows some power plants to buy and sell mercury pollution credits.

Mercury is a highly toxic substance that can poison wildlife and cause brain and nervous system damage in children and fetuses. Unlike some other air pollutants, such as carbon dioxide, mercury concentrates in dangerous “hot spots.” So merely reducing overall levels leaves some areas vulnerable.

Among the largest emitters of mercury pollution: coal-fired power plants, factories that produce chlorine, and automobile scrap yards. About 115 tons of mercury is emitted in the US each year, 48 tons of which come from power plants.

According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, mercury pollution in the US has contaminated 12 million acres of lakes, estuaries, and wetlands (30 percent of the total), and 473,000 miles of streams, rivers, and coasts. For updates on this and other PSR-LA legislative issues, please subscribe to the PSR-LA Action Alert system.

To access the Mt Sinai study, please visit http://www.childenvironment.

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