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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Tough on Mercury

Air Date: Week of

New EPA guidelines to cut mercury emissions from power plants have critics, and now some states, claiming that the cuts are inadequate. The New Hampshire state Senate voted this week to hold power plants there to much more stringent requirements, and nine state attorneys general filed suit against the federal government over the EPA rules. New Hampshire Public Radio's Dan Gorenstein reports.


CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

There's a growing trend among the states when it comes to environmental protection—if you don't think the federal government is doing enough, do it yourself. Citing a lack of federal action on climate change, California, for example, has passed a law to limit greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles. And, several states are suing the federal government to force it to regulate carbon dioxide, the major climate-changing gas.

Now, comes news that seven Northeast states, along with California and New Mexico, are suing the government, claiming its new rules on mercury emissions from power plants fail to meet standards under the Clean Air Act. They say more stringent rules are needed to protect pregnant mothers and children from mercury exposure. In New Hampshire, lawmakers aren't waiting for the suit to be heard; they're taking action now. From New Hampshire Public Radio, Dan Gorenstein reports.

GORENSTEIN: New EPA guidelines are expected to cut mercury emissions from power plants in half by 2015. But a number of states don't believe the federal plan goes far enough. Among them is New Hampshire, which has above average levels of mercury in some lakes and ponds. The state Senate has just passed a plan to sharply limit mercury emissions. The proposal calls for the state's two coal-fired power plants, both owned by Public Service of New Hampshire, to reduce emissions from 129 pounds a year to 50 pounds a year by 2009 and to further reduce the rate by 2013 to 24 pounds a year.

Democratic Senator Maggie Hassan says before the vote, she was concerned the Senate may prefer a cap and trade system for the power plants, similar to the EPA's plan.

HASSAN: The EPA has taken the position that you can trade mercury credits the way you can carbon dioxide credits. The problem is mercury does create local hot spots down- wind from mercury-emitting plants and, therefore, trading doesn't help those people in the hot spots. And that's why we took a different position than the EPA.

GORENSTEIN: Hassan and other supporters feared a similar system in New Hampshire would only prolong the pollution, putting environmental and public health at risk. However, some worry the state's Senate bill is simply too ambitious. Senate opponents and Public Service of New Hampshire officials both say it will be very expensive and near impossible to meet the standards outlined in the legislation. PSNH spokesperson Martin Murray worries one of the power plants may have to be closed.

MURRAY: This bill could conceivably force the shutdown of Merrimack Station because of the impossibility of hitting this timetable that the senate appears to want us to achieve. And, that would have a significant cost on our customers.

GORENSTEIN: How much mercury reduction will cost is one of the big question marks in the bill. Citing Department of Environmental Service estimates, Senator Hassan says PSNH ratepayers would have difficulty noticing the increase.

HASSAN: My understanding is that PSNH will have the right to pass this cost onto ratepayers. The estimates from the department are about 81 cents a month per average ratepayer. So, that's less than a cup of coffee today to clean up our water and make it safe to eat our fish again.

GORENSTEIN: PSNH's Martin Murray isn't so sure.

MURRAY: If there was a solution to this problem that was as economical as some of the supporters of this bill believe, we'd be first in the line with our wallets open. But the fact is, there is no cheap fix to such a complex challenge. There is no box that's on a shelf, waiting to be purchased and slapped on Merrimack Station or Schiller Station.

GORENSTEIN: Murray says the available technology for mercury reduction is still in the laboratory phase. He says he's just disappointed the Senate didn't consider the interests of PSNH customers. But, Republican Senator Ted Gatsas, for one, seemed confident PSNH customers would be satisfied.

GASTAS: I think if the ratepayers were asked, "would you rather see a rate increase that guarantees profit, or a rate increase that is going to save lives?" ratepayers would probably tell you they would rather see a rate increase to save lives.

GORENSTEIN: The bill now moves to the House. New Hampshire, though, is also pursuing a national remedy to mercury reduction by joining the lawsuit against the EPA. As one assistant attorney general said, the problem is greater than any one state because when mercury comes from upwind states, it's there to stay. For Living on Earth, I'm Dan Gorenstein in Concord, New Hampshire.

[MUSIC: Bob Dylan "Cold Irons Bound" Time Out Of Mind (Columbia) 1997]



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