Dyken Pond: Mercury in Fish/Power Plants: Mercury in Coal – Part III

Dyken Pond: Mercury in Fish/Power Plants: Mercury in Coal – Part III

 by John

Part III of this series of our mercury investigation will look at the regulatory response to mercury hazard after Part I reported the fish consumption advisory for Dyken Pond and then Part II examined the various sources of the mercury contamination, such as coal combustion in power plants. The main focus on regulatory control for mercury at the moment is the reduction of mercury air emissions from coal fired power plants. US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) data indicates that coal combustion in power plants now accounts for 43% of mercury air emissions generated in the US. There is a lively nation-wide and international debate raging about the methods and objectives for mercury air emissions reductions.

Mercury emissions reductions may be achieved by several methods including fuel switching, pre combustion methods, and post combustion methods. In fuel switching, reductions are achieved simply by substituting low mercury content fuel for a higher mercury content fuel. Pre combustion methods involve treating the coal to remove mercury prior to combustion. Post combustion technologies incorporate mercury removal processes into the combustion exhaust before it leaves the stack. Most post combustion technologies remove mercury from the exhaust by removing small particulates that the mercury is adhered to.

The Clean Air Act mandated the EPA to establish control programs for a list of air toxins, called the “hazardous air pollutants”, according to specified parameters. In 2002 President Bush proposed his administration’s program for cutting air emissions for three pollutants, NOx, SO2 and mercury. According to the White House press release on the Clear Skies Initiative, the proposed program will aim at reducing emissions using a cap and trade method, with reductions occurring in two coordinated steps, in 2010 and 2018. Mercury emissions under this program are ultimately expected to be reduced by 69%. Current annual emissions of 48 tons would be reduced to a cap of 26 tons by 2010 and then to 15 tons by 2018.

The intent of using the cap and trade method is to give utilities the flexibility to achieve reduction goals in the manner that is the most economical. In a cap and trade program, a cap or a maximum limit of emissions is set for a region and the total emissions of all the utilities within the region may not exceed this cap. Each utility is granted emission allowances or credits (based on complicated and hotly debated formulas partially dependent on historical performance) and may emit up to their maximum number of allowances without paying significant penalties. In a program that allows allowance trading, emitters that will be over their quota may purchase unused allowances from other utilities or allowance holders at a price agreed upon between the two parties. This establishes a trading market and the emission allowances become a commodity of value. Utilities are therefore left free to make their financial planning decisions based on the most advantageous marketplace efficiencies. This system is designed to insure that regional emissions are maintained within the cap with costs to utilities (and therefore rate payers) kept to a minimum.

The coordinated approach of regulating multiple pollutants along the same timetable is aimed at avoiding stranded investment costs that could be incurred when overlapping regulations mandate investment in a technology that would be subsequently rendered obsolete by the next regulation. Regulatory predictability and consistency are important issues for corporate financial planning. Businesses like to be confident that they can plan for the hurdles they will have to overcome in their long term planning so they want to know all the regulatory requirements up front.

In 2005, the EPA issued the Clean Air Mercury Rule (CAMR), which follows the guidelines set by the Clear Skies Initiative and acts in conjunction with the NOx and SO2 reduction of the Clean Air Interstate Rule (CAIR).  Under CAMR, utilities will be mandated to reduce emissions by 69% by 2018 in a two step process, with the first cap set at 38 tons per year and the ultimate cap at 15 tons. The reductions needed to reach the first cap are expected to be attained as a co benefit of the abatement required by CAIR since the technologies that lower NOx and SO2 emissions frequently also remove mercury. This will allow utilities to take advantage of a free ride in their trajectory towards the first mercury cap but still require that emissions controls are tightened up to meet the 15 ton cap in 2018.

In May 2006, Governor George Pataki proposed a more aggressive program to cut New York State mercury emissions from coal fired power plants by 50% from current levels by 2010 and by 90% by 2015. This program would establish a cap of 786 pounds per year for 2010 and a second cap of 150 pounds for 2015. The emissions reductions achieved to meet the second cap would be equivalent to those that could be achieved by adopting Maximum Available Control Technologies (MACT). This more aggressive policy utilizes the regulatory flexibility that allows a state to create its own regulations as long as the state version is at least as stringent as the federal version. The program also differs from the federal model in that it does not allow trading of emission allowances. According to a spokesperson of NY Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), NY will not allow trading because it is considered inappropriate for hazardous air pollutants, such as mercury, and it could also result in more concentrated emissions upwind that would create higher levels of mercury deposition in New York State. In fact, in 2005 New York and ten other states sued EPA claiming that the CAMR cap and trade program for mercury was both misguided and illegal under the Clean Air Act (CAA). In May 2006, EPA issued its final rule rejecting the claims of the suit.

There is a great deal of debate raging about how much emissions reduction should be achieved and how much money should be spent to achieve these reductions. While the Bush administration claims that the proposed Clear Skies Initiative will save electric rate payers $1 billion per year by reducing emissions in a cost effective manner, critics claim that the program misses the point and does not do enough to bring down harmful emissions to even more desirable and achievable levels. According to Robert Moore of the Environmental Advocates of NY, a non profit political advocacy organization, the reduction target goals of Clear Skies and CAMR are too lax and well behind more ambitious goals of 90% reduction already being considered by several other states, including coal producing states like Illinois. When asked if the organization recommended emission allowance trading within a cap and trade program, Moore said that cap and trade can be an effective emissions reduction tool, but “I find it (trading) troubling in the case of mercury because mercury is such a persistent bio accumulative toxin.” Moore went on to say that a strong toxin like mercury needed stringent reduction targets. “We have the technology so we can achieve these goals.”

In addition to controlling power plant emissions, EPA has established other regulations aimed at controlling smaller mercury emissions sources including the Mercury-Containing and Rechargeable Battery Management Act of 1996, EPA’s final rule to reduce emissions of mercury from mercury cell chlor-alkali plants of 2003, as well as rules limiting air emissions during combustion of mercury in solid waste and hazardous waste incinerators and from industrial, commercial, and institutional boilers and process heaters.

With any luck, the regulatory efforts at controlling mercury emissions may someday bring the mercury levels in the environment back down to more natural levels and sports fishermen will be able resume the age old past time of frying up their catch at places like Dyken Pond without having to check bulletin boards for hazard warnings. However, this might depend on political decisions made far from the peaceful serenity of Dyken Pond.