A conservation group from Maine is suing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency seeking to overturn an EPA rule that allows utilities to release tons of toxic mercury into the air.

“Merely declaring that mercury is not hazardous does not reduce the harm it is doing to our children,” said Jon Hinck, an attorney with Natural Resources Council of Maine, which will file the lawsuit this morning in Washington.

“EPA’s rule paves the way for more mercury in the air, in the water and in fish we eat,” he continued in a statement announcing the action. “This is a major problem, particularly since under the EPA plan, the older, most polluting plants may completely escape cleanup. Recent studies show that mercury concentrations keep growing near these older plants, poisoning nearby fish and wildlife.”

“The rule is simply illegal,” said Ann Brewster Weeks, an attorney and litigation director for the Clean Air Task Force, a public interest law organization that will represent the NRCM in federal court.

“Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA was required to develop rules limiting toxic air emissions from power plant smokestacks to the maximum achievable extent. Instead they have finalized a rule effectively letting the utilities off the hook,” she added.

The EPA promulgated the rule allowing utilities to avoid strict limits on their emissions earlier this spring, adapting a section of President Bush’s Clear Skies Initiative.

Immediately afterward, the NRCM called on Maine Sen. Susan Collins, who has championed clean air issues, to investigate the EPA’s action.

The 1990 Clean Air Act requires that EPA set the most protective limits on toxic air emissions like mercury, arsenic and cadmium that are technically feasible, said the NRCM. In the United States, coal-burning power plants are the largest unregulated source of mercury to the air.

The electric utility industry releases about 46 tons per year of mercury pollutant, and more than 350,000 tons per year total of all air toxics.

Mercury is a neurotoxin that can affect brain development of babies in the womb and cause significant learning problems in young children.

Mercury emissions settle onto land and in water, where it is taken into the food chain. More than 40 states, including Maine, have issued fish advisories telling women of childbearing age and young children to restrict consumption of freshwater fish due to mercury contamination.

One in six women of childbearing age has mercury levels in her blood that are unsafe for her baby, the NRCM has said. Nationwide, as many as 630,000 infants are exposed annually to mercury levels that put them at risk of serious cognitive and developmental harm.

Maine has been a national leader in efforts to abate mercury poisoning. The state has passed legislation requiring the recycling of the element from things like thermometers, thermostats and automotive switches.

This year the Legislature has discussed, then tabled two bills that would ban the use of mercury in dental fillings. Another bill is before the Legislature that would require mercury dental fillings to be removed from bodies before cremation, or that crematories install scrubbers to prevent the pollutant from reaching the air.

Hinck, of the NRCM, said the lawsuit is a continuation of the organization’s efforts to prevent mercury contamination.

“We bring this case out of our concern for future generations of Mainers and to get toxic chemicals like mercury out of the food we eat,” he said.

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