Bush Administration Plan to allow utilities to avoid deep cuts in mercury pollution violates the Clean Air Act
Washington, D.C. – A federal appeals court today ruled that the Bush Administration’s rules allowing coal-and oil-fired power plants to avoid making deep mandatory cuts in mercury and other toxic air pollution violates the law. The court’s decision invalidates the so-called “Clean Air Mercury Rule,” which would have allowed dangerously high levels of mercury air pollution to persist under a weak cap-and-trade program for utilities that would not have taken full effect until well beyond 2020. EPA’s rule further would have allowed coal- and oil-fired power plants also to avoid controls on any of other air toxics they emit, which include arsenic, lead, hydrogen chloride, and nickel.
Environmental groups, including Environment America (as U.S. PIRG), challenged the EPA’s suite of rules, along with fourteen states, dozens of Native American tribes, and public health and other and organizations representing registered nurses and physicians. Today’s ruling by the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit strongly rebuked EPA for creating an illegal loophole for the power generating industry, rather than applying the toughest emission standards of the Clean Air Act, and completely overturned both EPA’s delisting rule and the Agency’s cap and trade alternative to strict standards.
“We are thrilled with this decision,” said Nathan Willcox, of Environment America, the new home of U.S. PIRG’s environmental work. “EPA’s rule would have worsened the already high levels of mercury contamination in significant national watersheds like the Chesapeake Bay and the Great Lakes, as well as smaller local watersheds near power plants. Our members already experience higher than average mercury emissions, and can’t eat many locally caught fish species because of concern about mercury contamination. Research shows that deep cuts in industrial mercury emissions translate to cleaner lakes, rivers, and estuaries, and lower levels of mercury in fish and wildlife.”
Power plants spew 48 tons of mercury into the air each year, yet only 1/70th of a teaspoon of mercury is needed to contaminate a 25-acre lake to the point where fish are unsafe to eat. Recent research by NOAA confirms that the Chesapeake Bay and the Great Lakes exhibit high levels of contamination in local fish and wildlife, and EPA’s own research shows that local coal-fired power plants are a significant contributor to local contamination. In addition, EPA estimates that as many as 600,000 babies are born annually with irreversible brain damage because pregnant mothers ate mercury-contaminated fish.
“The court has now told EPA in no uncertain terms to follow the law as it is written. We are looking forward to working on rules that reflect the most stringent controls achievable for this industry, as the Clean Air Act requires,” said Ann Weeks, attorney for Clean Air Task Force who represented U.S. PIRG and three other environmental organizations in the case. “That’s what is needed to alleviate the public health issues associated with mercury contamination in fish and wildlife.”
Environment America- a federation of state environment groups, including Environment Colorado—is the new home for U.S. PIRG’s environmental work. www.environmentamerica.org