Clinton to reduce mercury emissions from power plants

The US Environmental Protection Agency has announced that the outgoing Clinton administration is to legislate to reduce mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants.

EPA Administrator Carol M Browner announced that the new rule will require reductions in polluting emissions from coal-fired power plants. The move follows two extensive studies into the effects of mercury emissions and the role of coal-fired power plants.

Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA was required to investigate toxic air pollution from power plants to determine if additional regulations were necessary, and then to develop legislation. The study, presented to Congress in February 1998, concluded that of all the toxic pollution examined, mercury gave the greatest concern for public health.

In the second report, the EPA’s 1997 Mercury Study Report to Congress, coal-fired electric utilities were shown to be the largest source of human-caused mercury air emissions in the US at 33% of the total. This was followed by municipal waste combustors (19%); medical waste incinerators (10%); and hazardous waste combustors (4%).

The new regulations will be in place by 2003 and final rules issued by 2004. Ms Browner said: “Mercury from power plants settles over waterways, polluting rivers and lakes, and contaminating fish. Exposure to mercury poses real risks to public health, especially to children and developing foetuses.”

“The greatest source of mercury emissions is power plants, and they have never been required to control these emissions before now,” added Browner. “Today’s decision to address this problem marks a major step forward in the Clinton administration’s ongoing efforts to protect public health and the environment.”

The move is the latest in a list of actions to reduce mercury pollution, include stringent regulations for industries that significantly contributed to the problem. A tranche of legislation, enacted since 1995, will halve the amount of human-related mercury by 2005, compared to 1990 levels.

EPA will begin developing its new regulations shortly. A new approach outlined this November by President Clinton will result in a combined strategy, addressing a range of pollutants including mercury, sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and carbon dioxide. This is seen as providing industry with greater certainty and flexibility than single-pollutant legislation.

The amount of mercury the US contributes globally is small (around 3%), but it still emits more than it receives. Around two-thirds of US mercury emissions go beyond its borders. Around 60% of the mercury deposited in the US comes from domestic, non-natural sources.

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie