PHILADELPHIA - Environmentalists and state officials spoke out yesterday against a Bush administration proposal to curb mercury and other smokestack pollution from power plants, saying the plan doesn't go far enough to safeguard the public's health.
The Environmental Protection Agency is proposing to reduce mercury pollution from coal-burning power plants by 70 percent over the next 15 years. At hearings here, in Chicago and in North Carolina, the agency sought public reaction to its mercury plan as well as to rules that would limit releases of other power plant pollutants.
There was little argument over EPA's plans for reducing emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, which contribute to the smog that fouls Maryland's air each summer and add to the Chesapeake Bay's woes.
Most of the criticism was aimed at EPA's plan for reducing mercury, a highly toxic substance linked to brain damage, mental retardation in children and other health problems.
Under EPA's proposal, power plants would be required to reduce mercury emissions from 48 tons nationwide to 15 tons by 2018. But EPA would allow power companies to avoid cleaning up certain plants by buying pollution credits from other facilities that did reduce emissions.
"To use an oft-quoted phrase, these caps are too little, too late," said Beth McGee, a senior scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
Mercury, which occurs naturally in coal, is released into the air when the fuel is burned to produce electricity. After it is emitted, it falls to the ground and enters waterways. Humans become exposed when they eat fish.
In Maryland and several other states, officials have posted advisories warning people to limit the amount of fish they eat from certain waterways because they are contaminated with mercury.
Power plants generate 40 percent of the nation's mercury pollution. Municipal and medical-waste incinerators, other major sources, already have their emissions regulated.
EPA officials defended the proposal this week, arguing that a cap-and-trade plan would encourage the biggest polluters to act early and earn credits that could later be sold to other utilities. The proposal also would avoid litigation that could delay cleanup efforts for years.
"We're not going to have a standard that anyone's meeting if everyone is sitting in a courtroom," said Cynthia Bergman, an EPA spokeswoman.
But critics say the regulations will not have their full effect for 20 years and that available technology makes it possible to accomplish more ambitious goals, reducing mercury by 90 percent much more quickly.
"This proposal does nothing, and that's bad science, bad economics, bad policy and bad law," said Peter Lehner, a lawyer with the New York attorney general's office.
Maryland officials also oppose EPA's mercury proposal and want stricter limits on emissions from each power plant. Utilities in the state emit about 2 million tons of mercury.
"We do wish they'd be a little bit tougher, and a little bit quicker with compliance," said George "Tad" Aburn, air quality program manager for the state Department of the Environment. He is scheduled to testify today.
About 50 sign-waving activists marched and chanted slogans outside the Wyndham Hotel, where the hearing was being held. One protester was dressed like a grim reaper, another like a bright green fish.
Utility officials support the EPA proposal. They say a similar approach reduced acid-rain pollution in the 1990s and will prevent energy rate hikes that would be necessary if power plants were forced to suddenly switch from coal to natural gas.
"It makes more sense to predictably and reliably reduce emissions in the most cost-effective way," said Scott Segal, director of the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, which represents utilities.
But environmentalists argue that what reduced acid-rain pollutants might not work for mercury. Studies show that unlike sulfur dioxide and other acid-rain pollutants, certain forms of mercury don't travel far in the atmosphere, said McGee, the bay foundation scientist. The group supports trading pollution credits for sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions, but not for mercury.
Dr. Michael McCally, president of Physicians for Social Responsibility, said EPA estimates show that one in six children born nationwide is at risk for developmental problems because their mothers have unsafe levels of mercury in their blood.
Susan Gobreski of Philadelphia displayed photographs of her two daughters, ages 3 and 6, and asked EPA officials to keep them and her unborn child in mind when they enacted the mercury regulations.
"I have every reason to believe my baby's going to be healthy," said Gobreski, who says she limits her diet of fish. "But how many other children aren't going to be so lucky?"
Experts said that much remains unknown about mercury, but it's widely considered to be hazardous to adults as well as children.
"In many ways, we're still at the point in evaluating mercury as a toxic pollutant as we were in our thinking about lead some 25 years ago," said Ellen K. Silbergeld, a professor of environmental health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
The hearing is scheduled to continue today. The EPA will accept written comments until March 30.