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Bipartisan push on mercury pollution

Senate vote keeps tougher emission controls on track



Contributing writer

At first glance, Mark Jester doesn’t seem like the right demographic to be calling for tougher rules from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Jester is a registered Republican who ran in a special election for state representative last year, and his Twitter feed includes pointed criticisms of President Obama and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi.

But over the last year, Jester has spoken out at public events, written letters to the editor and testified in Washington in favor of the EPA’s controversial new rules to regulate airborne mercury pollution.

The rules, announced by the EPA in March, would curb emissions of mercury and other toxic substances from coal-fired power plants and require the plants to install pollution-catching “scrubbing” technology.

The EPA’s plan has been vigorously opposed by coal and oil producers and by many Republicans in Washington, and last month the U.S. Senate came within a few votes of blocking the new rules.

But Jester, who is president of the Berkshire County League of Sportsmen, said the region’s hunters and anglers know from experience the damage caused by mercury pollution.

“The sportsmen are the first ones in the woods, the first ones in the water,” Jester said.

Sportsmen in New England are speaking out in favor of stricter pollution standards, he said, because they want to reduce the amount of airborne mercury that wafts into the region from the Midwest and settles into local lakes and streams.

In recent years, Massachusetts, New York and Vermont all have issued statewide advisories recommending that children and women of childbearing age avoid eating fish from freshwater lakes and streams because of contamination from mercury, a powerful neurotoxin. Additional restrictions are urged at some lakes and streams where particularly high mercury concentrations have been found in fish.

At Pontoosuc Lake, just north of Jester’s hometown of Pittsfield, for example, the state has posted an advisory urging women of childbearing age and children under 12 to avoid eating largemouth bass -- and for others to limit their consumption to no more than two fish per month.

“We are the hot spot,” Jester said. “We are the ones responsible for bringing this issue to light.”

Elsewhere in the region, fish from the Deerfield chain of reservoirs in southern Vermont have been found to have unusually high concentrations of mercury. And tests at many other water bodies around the region have revealed mercury concentrations at levels above 0.3 parts per million, which the EPA considers the threshold for health concerns.

Senate showdown

The EPA’s new rules are aimed at reducing mercury emissions from coal-burning power plants, the largest and dirtiest of which are in Ohio, West Virginia, western Pennsylvania, and several other states to the west.

Political battles over how to reduce mercury emissions have been shaped by the fact that pollution that’s mainly created in the Midwest is having its worst effects in the Northeast.

Last month’s Senate vote was pushed by Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., who used an obscure legislative procedure to try to strip the EPA of its ability to regulate mercury emissions. Inhofe, backed by most Republican senators and a handful of Democrats from energy-producing states, argued that the EPA’s new mercury rules would kill jobs.

But the effort to block the EPA rules failed in a 53-47 vote. Crucial to the outcome were five Republican senators who joined most of the Democrats in the majority. The Republicans who broke ranks included Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., and the three other GOP senators from New England: Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, and Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine.

If Inhofe’s measure had passed, it would have nullified the new EPA regulations, known as the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, and forced the agency to seek congressional approval before creating any similar regulations.

The vote was just the latest skirmish in a decades-long battle over the EPA’s authority to regulate airborne mercury under the Clean Air Act. In 1990, Congress directed the agency to study whether mercury emissions should be regulated. A decade later, the agency came back with an answer, saying that they should.

But Congress never followed up with any specific mandate to regulate mercury, and last year the EPA used its own discretion to announce new emissions standards for mercury and other pollutants generated by coal-burning power plants.

Russell Bailey, an engineer at Trinity Consultants of Virginia who specializes in advising electric power producers on how to comply with environmental regulations, said many in the industry feel the new rules lack an official seal of approval from Congress.

“The EPA didn’t have to regulate this,” Bailey explained. “They chose to.”

The EPA has estimated that its new rules will prevent 11,000 premature deaths per year.

But Inhofe argued that the rule represented overreach on the part of the Obama administration and would place an undue burden on the coal industry for too little public benefit.

The Oklahoma senator, known for his outspoken view that climate change is a hoax, contends the mercury regulations were designed to punish the coal industry and benefit the renewable energy sector. He would become chairman of the Senate committee overseeing environmental legislation if Republicans regain control of the chamber in the November election.

“This rule isn’t about public health,” Inhofe said in a statement opening Senate oversight hearings on the new rules earlier this year. “It’s about one thing -- killing coal -- as a gift to Obama's political allies: the environmental movement and crony capitalists who profit through government intervention.”


Forcing changes
Barring a court challenge, the new EPA regulations will now go into effect by 2015.

Environmentalists say the new standards will immediately cut mercury emissions by 90 percent. To comply, coal-powered power plants will have to install anti-pollution technology that captures mercury and other toxins before they are emitted. Currently, about half the coal-fired power plants in the nation have this technology.

Bailey said the new rule will force the electric power industry to reconfigure its grid, especially for peak summertime loads. Power grids typically fire up older, backup power plants for air-conditioning season, when energy use spikes. But utilities might find it too costly to install the mandated pollution-control technology at the backup plants and instead phase them out, he said.

“It’s kind of like buying a new car,” Bailey said. “If you use it every day, it makes sense to upgrade. But if you only use it once in a while, it doesn’t.”

Environmental advocates across New England mobilized against Inhofe’s measure, and were concerned when some New England senators sided with Inhofe on procedural votes or failed to speak out against the proposal when it was first introduced.

Even after the vote, some were concerned about the tone of the debate surrounding emission controls.

Carol Oldham, the Northeast regional outreach coordinator for the National Wildlife Federation, said she was startled that the vote was so close.

“I don’t get it,” Oldham said. “This is clearly within the Clean Air Act and the EPA’s authority.”

For mercury pollution, Oldham said, a federal regulation is needed. The region’s state governments have been aggressive for years about curbing local mercury emissions and requiring pollution-control technologies, and those measures appear to have paid off in lower emissions locally.

A recent study by the National Resources Defense Council, for example, found New York accounted for the least mercury pollution of any state bordering the Great Lakes.

But New Yorkers and New Englanders are still paying the price of the lax pollution policies of other states, Oldham pointed out.

“That’s why we have a federal government,” she said. “We can’t control what happens in the Midwest with Massachusetts laws or Vermont laws.”


Jobs vs. the environment?
Oldham suggested that the Senate vote was close because the energy industry did a good job of messaging about the threat of lost jobs.

The industry claims the EPA rule is the most expensive the agency has ever enacted -- and that it will crush the coal industry at a time when President Obama has advocated an “all of the above” strategy for boosting domestic energy production.

Lisa Camooso Miller, a spokeswoman for the American Coalition for Clean Coal Energy, said the industry already has invested billions to cut carbon emissions by 90 percent in the last 30 years. Asking coal companies to take another leap forward in just three years is just too much, she said.

“This will prematurely shut down coal refineries,” Camooso Miller said.

She said the EPA under Obama has been heaping burdensome regulations onto an already-slow process of building new power plants, even ones with new pollution-control technologies.

“Countries like China are putting coal plants online every 18 months,” Camooso Miller said. “In the U.S., it takes that long to get a permit if we’re lucky.”

But Oldham and other environmentalists argue that the industry has known for decades that regulations like these would eventually work their way through litigation and legislation.

“The control technology has existed for decades at this point,” Oldham said. “There’s no reason the rest of the country can’t do this.”

The congressional battle may not be over, however. Although the Inhofe measure was defeated, the Senate still is considering one bill that would delay implementation of the EPA regulations and another that would require the agency to do an additional level of financial analysis for similar regulations, said Michael Seilback, a spokesman for the American Lung Association of the Northeast.

Seilback contends the financial analysis bill would add a needless layer of litigation to the regulatory process and would help to ensure that nothing gets done.

“It’s like requiring a doctor to base a prognosis on the cost of the treatment and the insurance company’s willingness to treat it,” Seilback said.

Meanwhile, many believe the affected industries will go to court to challenge the EPA regulations.

Bailey said he expects litigation will focus on whether the EPA overstepped its bounds in regulating mercury without a congressional mandate and whether the regulations unfairly lump mercury in with other pollutants in the agency’s accounting of the regulations’ health benefits.

Environmentalists remain wary about what will happen next.

Oldham said the political debate has grown increasingly strident, with more lawmakers calling for an outright ban on regulating emissions of any sort. Earlier this year, the Senate narrowly defeated a proposal by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., to prevent the EPA from making any future regulations on power plant emissions.

Against this backdrop, the bipartisan unity of the New England congressional delegation may be more important than ever.

“For awhile, they have been the moderate voice,” Oldham said. “If they don’t do it, clearly nobody else will.”

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