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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Mercury Rising

Air Date: Week of

A flood of public comments pushed the Environmental Protection Agency to review its new rule to cut mercury emissions from power plants. Jeff Young reports the rule's critics–including some former EPA staffers–say the agency should take another look at technology that could make deeper, faster, mercury cuts.


GELLERMAN: The Environmental Protection Agency plans to reduce mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants 70 percent over the next 15 years. But the proposal hit a nerve, and the EPA was flooded with public comments – the most in agency’s history.

Now the EPA says it will delay action on the rule while it reviews the comments. Most deal with whether a new technology to control mercury emissions can do the job. And if so, how soon? Living on Earth’s Jeff Young reports.

YOUNG: Lawmakers gathered near the capitol to look over stacks of cards and letters collected in opposition to EPA’s proposal for controlling mercury pollution. Some 450,000 people have commented and Connecticut Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman says most are telling EPA to try again on mercury.

LIEBERMAN: This rule has now become the most disapproved rule of any in the history of the EPA, and there’s good reason for it.


YOUNG: Lieberman and others demanded an explanation for how paragraphs from power industry memos showed up word-for-word in EPA’s proposal. They also want to know why the agency would wait more than a decade to implement what they call modest reductions in mercury. They claim technology already exists to make deeper cuts now.

EPA administrator Mike Leavitt told the national press club last month that he agrees the status of technology to control emissions is key to the mercury rule. But that’s where the agreement ends.

LEAVITT: Frankly, this is the issue on which this turns. I brought a panel of scientists and engineers together who not only understood this, they invented it. And they made clear to me that the new technology that we have such optimism on to reduce mercury from power plants is coming, but it will not be widely distributable or adequately tested until 2010. Those who say we can reduce it by 90 percent by 2007 are guilty of old thinking.

YOUNG: Leavitt’s remarks leave some key players in the business of pollution-control technology puzzled and dismayed. Dave Foerter is executive director of the Washington-based Institute for Clean Air Companies, which represents about 80 businesses making and marketing pollution-control equipment. Foerter says EPA’s top officials never asked for his input on the mercury rule.

FOERTER: We are the vendor community, or a good part of the vendor community, and we haven’t spoken directly to Leavitt on this and haven’t really been asked our opinion on it. So I just have to assume that who he’s been talking to are people who don’t have a vested interest in making this actually happen.

YOUNG: Foerter insists technology does exist that can cut mercury from coal power plants up to 90 percent. He points to a long-term test underway at the Southern Company’s power plant in Alabama showing good results at relatively low cost. And Foerter says a more aggressive EPA rule would spark more competition and creativity among companies, further lowering both costs and emissions.

FOERTER We have these things currently ready and the vendors are just chomping at the bit to sell these things. If we didn’t think we could do it we wouldn’t be out there pushing for these things to happen.

YOUNG: An EPA spokesperson calls the technology Foerter promotes hopeful, but says it still has kinks that must be worked out before it is commercially available. The agency wants the technology tested on all types of coal and boilers used across the power industry. Until then, EPA Chief Leavitt says, the technology’s performance can’t be guaranteed.

LEAVITT: When I sign rule, however, I have to deal with what’s real, not just what people who sell equipment say.

YOUNG: But some EPA insiders say the equipment salesmen are right. Bruce Buckheit retired as director of EPA’s air enforcement division just after the mercury proposal was announced. Buckheit says the agency’s own reviewers concluded years ago that deep mercury cuts were possible with existing technology. He’s suspicious of the agency’s new argument that the technology is not ready for prime time.

BUCKHEIT: If you go back a few years before these latest pronouncements and read what EPA was saying about these technologies and about what people knew, then you see a stark contrast. I think this is made up.

YOUNG: Buckheit’s input was not included in the agency’s mercury proposal. He says many career EPA employees were frozen out of the process while political appointees and the White house drafted the document.

BUCKHEIT: We learned of these new proposals the same as everyone else did, by reading about them in the paper. This was top down. The agency was given a decision and told to write it up.

YOUNG: So looking at this from the science side of things, is it science?

BUCKHEIT: Ah, no. Science is not the driver on policy decisions. The contacts with whoever talks to whoever at the white house drives that policy. Science is used to go find a justification for a decision that’s reached for other reasons.

YOUNG: The extended comment period gives EPA time to reconsider its assessment of the technology. Foerter, with the clean air companies, says that means he’ll finally get a 45-minute meeting with EPA’s deputy for air issues.

FOERTER: If EPA comes out and says the rule is based on there is no technology available, and I’m sitting here with vendors with licenses and everything else and they’re saying technology is available, then we need a meeting of the minds at some point. So 45 minutes for a meeting of the minds, that’s what I’m looking for.

YOUNG: We’ll learn if Foerter changes any minds at the agency when EPA presents its final rule on mercury next March. For Living on Earth, I’m Jeff Young in Washington.



EPA’s mercury web site

The Institute of Clean Air Companies

Northeastern States for Coordinated Air Use Management

The Edison Electric Institute


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