WASHINGTON – Mainers, from environmentalists to members of Congress, lauded a federal appeals court decision Friday that struck down a Bush administration policy allowing some power plants to exceed mercury emission levels. The court ruled that the government failed to consider the policy’s effect on public health and the environment.

Maine and 13 other states sued to block the Bush regulation, saying it would allow dangerous levels of mercury into the environment. The toxic metal is known to contaminate seafood that, when eaten, can damage the developing brains of fetuses and young children.

“This ruling represents a significant victory for both the health of Maine people and our natural environment,” Maine Attorney General Steven Rowe said in a statement Friday. “The courts have rejected a Bush administration attempt to put the profits of corporate polluters above the health of the American people.”

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia negated a rule known as cap-and-trade. That policy allows power plants that fail to meet emission targets to buy credits from plants that did, rather than having to install their own mercury emissions controls. The rule was to go into effect in 2010.

The three-judge court unanimously struck down the cap-and-trade policy and the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s plan to exempt coal- and oil-fired power plants from regulations requiring strict emissions control technology to block emissions. Before instituting the new regulation, the court held, the government was required to show that emissions from any power plant would not harm the environment or “exceed a level which is adequate to protect public health with an ample margin of safety.”

The EPA argued it was not required to follow that rule, a stance the court held was “not persuasive.”

The agency defended the rule, saying it represented the nation’s first attempt to control such emissions and that it would reduce mercury emissions by 70 percent.

“Keep in mind, the U.S. now has no national mercury emissions regulation for these plants,” EPA spokesman Jonathan Shradar said, adding that the EPA would consider whether the cap-and-trade policy could be resurrected under a different regulation. “It’s good for America and it’s good for the environment. We want to be a global leader on this issue,” he said.

Industry organizations strongly supported the plan.

“The court’s decision represents a major setback for federal efforts to establish clear mercury regulations for coal-fired power plants,” said Dan Riedinger, a spokesman for Edison Electric Institute, an association of power companies. “Now EPA has to go back to the drawing board, pushing mercury regulations far off into the future.”

High mercury levels in the state’s fish, loon and eagle populations prompted the Maine Bureau of Health to issue a statewide advisory in 1994 to limit fish consumption for pregnant women and young children. The advisory remains in effect because mercury levels have not diminished sufficiently.

“This is good news for every family in America,” said Matt Prindiville of the Natural Resources Council of Maine, one of four environmental organizations involved in the case. “It means that someday our kids will be able to eat the fish they catch from our lakes and rivers.”

Mercury is a powerful neurotoxin. The National Academy of Sciences estimates that 60,000 newborns a year could be at risk of learning disabilities because of mercury their mothers absorbed during pregnancy. About 8 percent of U.S. women of child-bearing age have enough mercury in their blood to cause concern for a future pregnancy.

Members of Maine’s congressional delegation all support the federal court decision.

“Maine’s environment should not be for sale to the lowest bidder,” Republican U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe said. “Today’s decision underscores the lunacy of having a standard that allows plants to purchase their way out of compliance.”

Snowe and U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, sent a letter to the EPA last November, along with other senators from the Northeast, in a bipartisan effort to expedite mercury emission reductions. Collins has also co-sponsored a bill with U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., that would create nationwide mercury monitoring sites.

Democratic Reps. Tom Allen and Mike Michaud of Maine joined the senators in approving the court decision.

“The court has affirmed what Tom has said all along: The Bush rules do not comply with the Clean Air Act,” Allen’s spokesman, Mark Sullivan, said Friday.

Maine has taken great steps to reduce mercury, but continues to suffer because of out-of-state pollution, Michaud said.

Associated Press writers Cara Rubinsky in Hartford, Conn., and Rebecca Santana in Trenton, N.J., contributed to this report.

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