Predictably, two distinct constituencies offered comments to the Air Pollution Control Board ( APCB ) at its Oct. 6 public hearing in Indianapolis regarding a petition by the Hoosier Environmental Council (HEC) to dramatically reduce mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants.

Representatives of soon-to-be-regulated companies (mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants are currently unregulated) called on the APCB to wait until the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issues its long-awaited regulations in March 2005, rather than promulgate separate, stricter rules.

Claiming that EPA's proposal to cut mercury emissions 70 percent by 2018 was insufficient to protect public health and the environment, HEC petitioned the APCB in June to adopt a state rule that would reduce mercury emissions from power plants by 90 percent by 2008 and also increase the regulatory scope to include "private" power plants like those at Notre Dame University and Purdue University. (The proposed EPA regulations would not include such plants.)

Representatives from the Indiana Manufacturers' Association, the Indiana Energy Association, the Indiana Chamber of Commerce and a coal-industry front group, Americans for Balanced Energy Choices, joined speakers representing Cinergy, Northern Indiana Public Service Co. and Indianapolis Power & Light in urging the APCB to reject HEC's petition.

One by one, the industry "suits" lauded coal as an energy source and warned that superseding EPA's 70 percent reduction target would cause economic hardship for power generators and increase consumers' electricity rates, thereby hurting Indiana's business climate and having only a marginal effect on reducing mercury in the state's air and water.

Countering those contentions were HEC staffers and board members, representatives from the Indiana Wildlife Association and the Great Lakes office of the National Wildlife Association, Evansville-based Valley Watch, as well as assorted parents and grandparents. This "Green Team" asked the APCB to place public health above private profit and join Connecticut, Massachusetts and Wisconsin in passing rules stronger than EPA's proposal.

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Mercury is a persistent neurotoxin that has been linked to developmental problems and learning disabilities in children. Studies have found that high levels also adversely affect adults' nervous systems.

The Food and Drug Administration has stated that high levels of mercury in some fish, such as albacore tuna, can pose a health threat to children and pregnant or nursing women. A recent EPA report found that nearly eight percent of American women of childbearing age have enough mercury in their blood to put a fetus at risk.

In 2000, the EPA acknowledged that mercury's toxic properties required it to be regulated as a hazardous substance. The agency's Clean Air Act calls for the utility industry to install "maximum achievable control technology" in the nation's 500 coal-fired power plants by 2008.

The Act is in response to a lawsuit filed by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), which sued EPA in 1992 to regulate hazardous power plant emissions.

Then came the election of 2000 and a new administration with a different approach to clean skies, healthy forests and other environmental issues — especially those involving the energy industry.

Christine Todd Whitman, the Bush administration's first EPA director, was unable to make headway in addressing the mercury issue. Her replacement, former Utah Governor Michael Leavitt, has been reviewing EPA's policy since his appointment in November 2003.

In January 2004, Leavitt unveiled EPA's proposal and the NRDC agreed to an extension of the public comment period. March 15, 2005, is the agreed-upon deadline for inaugurating EPA's "70 percent by 2018" proposal.

This should be of particular concern to Hoosiers because Indiana ranks 4th in the nation in power plant mercury emissions — trailing only Texas, Ohio and Pennsylvania — at 4.9 tons a year, according to recent EPA statistics. In addition, every river and stream as well as many lakes in the state are under a fish consumption advisory that urges Hoosiers to limit eating fish caught in Indiana waters because of elevated mercury content.

One citizen at the APCB meeting noted the irony of industry spokesmen advocating support of EPA's forthcoming rule, given that the utility industry normally opposes EPA regs.

At issue is EPA's phrase "maximum achievable control technology." Industry representatives claim HEC's request for a 90 percent reduction is impossible given current technology. However, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group counters their claim. Its August 2004 report, "Reel Danger: Power Plant Mercury Emissions and the Fish We Eat," states:

In response to a request for information from five manufacturers of mercury emission control technologies in late 2003, Senator James Jeffords of Vermont found the following: "Two of the companies are confident their technologies could reduce mercury emissions from power plants by at least 80-90% from all types of coal combustion. One of these two technologies can achieve even greater than 90% capture of mercury from the harder-to-control western sub-bituminous and lignite coals. Three out of the five companies responding indicate that their technologies are currently available commercially, while the remaining two plan to enter the market in 2004 and 2005. ... Stringent control of utility mercury emissions ... is economically feasible and technically achievable for even the dirtiest fuel types. These technologies are available for application now and within the next two years."

Will APCB members heed that message? The "Green Team" was disappointed that only one hearing was scheduled for public comment on HEC's petition and did not include the most affected part of the state, southwestern Indiana.

The issue certainly isn't going to go disappear. The question is, must industry's need for healthy profits always trump the health of Hoosiers? If history is any indicator, we already know the outcome.

Thomas P. Healy is a journalist in Indianapolis.

For more information:

IDEM on mercury: ...

U.S. Public Interest Research Group report: ...