Thursday, December 21, 2006

Celebrating New State Rule on Mercury Emissions

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As 2006 draws to a close, I invite you to pause and celebrate a change that has been set in motion this year that will benefit us all long into the future. I mean the new rule on air pollution from coal-fired power plants proposed by Governor Blagojevich back in January and given final approval by a bipartisan legislative oversight committee just last week.

The new rule requires operators of coal-fired power plants to make dramatic reductions in how much mercury their facilities put into the air by installing modern pollution control equipment. This is equipment that is available right now, and at a cost that will not place an undue burden on producers or consumers of electricity. The rule stipulates an average reduction of ninety percent across the fleet of plants operated by each company by 2009, allowing another three years before each individual plant has to meet the new standard.

Prior to final approval of the new rule, agreements on emissions were hammered out between the State of Illinois and the three major coal-fired power companies operating here. These agreements also institute significant reductions in emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, which contribute to an array of environmental and human-health problems.

It’s especially significant that the new rule on mercury emissions does not permit power plants to buy allowances or trade mercury emissions credits with other companies or states. While such practices can be reasonable with respect to other pollutants, they are not when it comes to mercury, since they can lead to the creation of toxic “hot-spots” in the vicinity of power plants.

Although stricter regulations on mercury emissions from power plants in Illinois are to be applauded, it should be remembered that they represent only a second-best option for addressing the problem of mercury pollution. At issue is an airborne pollutant that can travel far from its source without any regard for state lines, one that really should be regulated nationally. State regulations only became necessary when early last year the US EPA failed to require ninety percent cuts in mercury emissions by 2008—despite the fact that its own staff had found such reductions were possible at a reasonable cost using existing technologies.

Illinois’ new rule has received strong support from statewide conservation groups, including Prairie Rivers Network, which is based in Champaign. According to Prairie Rivers’ executive director, Jean Flemma, the new rule represents “a victory for public health as well as the health of fish and wildlife in the state.”

In requiring power plants to meet higher standards, Illinois—which currently ranks sixth among all states for mercury emitted from power plants—becomes a leader in the effort to reduce mercury pollution. And it joins a number of other Midwestern states in recognizing the value of adopting clean energy technologies to protect human health and natural resources.

Somewhere down the road we ought to be able to eat the fish we catch in Illinois without having to worry about how much mercury we’re ingesting when we do. The new state rule limiting mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants is a step in that direction.