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Legislature debates mercury standards
by Rustbelt Radio / Jessica Monday, Jun. 05, 2006 at 9:27 PM

The Republican-led Pennsylvania General Assembly is set to consider legislation that would prohibit the state Department of Environmental Protection from adopting regulations to limit mercury pollution.

Five tons of mercury are released per year in Pennsylvania, an amount which is second only to Texas. 3/4 of the pollution comes from the smokestacks of coal-fired power plants. Mercury is a neurotoxin that moves from the air to waterways and accumulates in fish flesh. When ingested, it is acutely harmful to child development, interfering with the normal development of fine motor skills and cognitive functions. New research also links mercury exposure to autism and attention deficit disorder in children, and increased risk of cardiovascular disease in adults. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently estimated that one in six women of childbearing age have mercury in their blood above the level that would pose a risk to a developing fetus.

The Pennsylvania DEP, after a campaign from a broad coalition of health advocacy and environmental groups, is poised to enact new regulatory standards that would require power plants to reduce their mercury emissions by 90% by 2015. However, Senator Mary Jo White has introduced a bill that would instead require Pennsylvania to follow the far less stringent mercury rules of the federal Environmental Protection Agency. Senator White says that "To put Pennsylvania under a different rule is to put the state at a competitive disadvantage. I would do this for a real benefit, but that's not what I hear. I cannot believe the stuff the DEP is putting out."

The federal EPA rules would allow lesser and slower mercury reductions by Pennsylvania's 36 coal-fired power plants, and could allow some older plants that are among the biggest polluters in the nation to avoid making any emissions reductions. The EPA rules aim to reduce emissions by 70 percent by 2018. Power plants could delay installing controls for up to five years. And, because the EPA rule allows emissions trading between states, some of Pennsylvania’s dirtiest plants could avoid making any reductions in their mercury emissions by purchasing credits from cleaner facilities elsewhere.

State and national studies show the mercury tends to concentrate around local emission sources, creating “hot spots” of contamination. In Pennsylvania, mercury contamination is so widespread that the Fish and Boat Commission has issued an advisory cautioning people to not eat more than one meal per week of sport fish caught in any water body in the state. Because of the high level of local contamination, the DEP says Pennsylvania has "a compelling case for seeking a state-specific rule." Technology exists to retrofit coal power plants to remove 98% of mercury from smokestack emissions, at an estimated additional cost of 1 to 3 dollars per month for the average household electric consumer. Regulatory standards enacted in Massachussetts and Florida have acheived dramatic reductions in mercury contamination in less than a decade.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency mercury emission rules take effect in July; states have until Nov. 17 to adopt stricter state mercury pollution standards.

This Tuesday June 6, the third and final committee hearing on Senator Mary Jo White’s bill will be held. DEP Secretary Kathleen McGinty and several public health experts are scheduled to speak. Representatives of the electric companies spoke at the previous hearings.

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