Inspector general criticizes EPA’s mercury emissions plan


CHICAGO – Allowing utilities to trade the right to release mercury could make it difficult to reduce high amounts of the toxic metal found in parts of the nation, according to a new report from the Environmental Protection Agency’s inspector general.

The independent review is the latest criticism of the Bush administration’s approach to regulating the nation’s largest source of mercury, which can cause neurological and developmental problems, particularly in fetuses and young children.

Among other things, the report found that the fine print of the administration’s rules would make it tougher to require power plants to take action if “hot spots” – areas with large amounts of mercury – were discovered in nearby lakes and rivers.

Top EPA officials also have failed to follow through on promises to improve a network of monitoring equipment to track mercury pollution throughout the country, the report concluded.

The rules could end up preventing the agency from taking steps to cut the amount of mercury falling in already-polluted areas, acting EPA Inspector General Bill Roderick wrote in the 24-page report. He noted that Illinois and 43 other states warn people to limit eating fish caught in local waters because of mercury contamination.

Under the EPA’s rules, which will take effect unless court action stops them, coal-fired power plants would have until at least 2018 to cut mercury emissions by 70 percent. Utilities would be able to trade the right to keep releasing mercury into the air at some coal plants as long as overall emissions declined.

The system is patterned after a successful effort to reduce sulfur dioxide pollution, but many scientists say it shouldn’t be used for mercury, a toxic substance that accumulates in the body. They also say that mercury is more likely than other airborne pollutants to fall back to earth close to its source.

The agency disagrees, releasing a statement Tuesday that asserts there is “no reason to believe that there will be utility-attributable hot spots anywhere in the country” once the new rules take effect. Some of the EPA’s own researchers, however, have contradicted the agency’s official statements.

One study, to be published this summer in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, found that 70 percent of the mercury in Steubenville, Ohio, came from nearby coal plants. Another EPA study identified Chicago as a hot spot, with about two-thirds of the mercury that falls locally coming from coal plants and other sources within Illinois.

The inspector general’s report concluded that uncertainties remain about how mercury travels in the atmosphere and how the metal is converted into a potent form that becomes more dangerous as it moves up the food chain from fish to people.

There also are questions about the scientific model the EPA used to support its mercury trading system, according to the report. Some scientists have found the model vastly underestimates the amount of mercury falling into lakes and rivers.

Illinois and several other states have moved to impose their own mercury rules that would be far tougher than the federal effort. While the details vary, the states would require deeper and faster cuts in emissions at every coal plant and prevent utilities from trading the right to pollute.

Critics of the administration’s approach said the new report highlighted how the federal mercury rules would fail to protect Americans.

“If you let a plant buy its way out of controlling mercury pollution, the people living near that plant are likely to suffer,” said Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, who is challenging the federal rules along with her counterparts in 14 other states. “Instead of taking a hard look at this problem, the agency turned a blind eye.”