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New Pressure on U.S. EPA to Delay Final Mercury Rule

A proposed rule to limit mercury from coal-fired power plants took center stage at a divisive Congressional hearing this week

By Elizabeth McGowan, SolveClimate News

Jun 17, 2011
Lisa Jackson

WASHINGTON—These days, it would be understandable if EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson began channeling the spirit of former Minnesota Democratic Sen. Ed Muskie.

Frustrated with the automobile industry's vehement pushback on compliance with emissions standards in 1977, the chief author of the Clean Air Act told colleagues on the Senate floor: "Give them an inch and they'll take 100,000 miles."

Thirty-four years later, the debate features power companies' emissions, but the sentiments of the continuing federal government vs. private sector tug-of-war remain the same. In a nutshell, utilities resent the Environmental Protection Agency's recent efforts to fashion a host of Clean Air Act updates that dictate when and how to curb a lengthy list of pollutants.

A proposed rule to limit mercury and other air toxics from coal-burning electricity generators took center stage at a divisive hearing Wednesday.

Though chairwoman Barbara Boxer of California and her fellow Democrats did their darndest to sing Jackson's praises, those hosannas were matched by a dirge of gloom and doom from Republicans worried that adapting to these new circumstances would have sweeping and massive repercussions with lost jobs and soaring electricity rates.

The fact is, however, that EPA is under a court order to set new and comprehensive mercury standards. That legal agreement requires final standards on power plants by November. EPA issued the long-awaited new rule in mid-March. It is now in the midst of a 60-day comment period after being published in the Federal Register in early May.

In her opening remarks Wednesday, Jackson explained why limiting mercury — a toxin that causes neurological damage — and other metals such as arsenic, chromium, nickel, as well as acid gases and fine particle pollution will save lives by clearing the air citizens breathe.

"These are simple facts that should not be up for debate," Jackson continued. "While Americans across the country suffer from this pollution, special interests who are trying to gut long-standing public health protections are now going so far as to claim that these pollutants aren't even harmful. These myths are being perpetrated by some of the same lobbyists who have in the past testified before Congress about the importance of reducing mercury and particulate matter. Now on behalf of their clients, they're saying the exact opposite."

New Pressure From Dingell Democrats

Michigan Rep. John Dingell convinced 26 other House Democrats to sign a five-paragraph letter asking EPA to extend the comment period on the air toxics rule for power plants from 60 days to 120 days.

"Like you, we believe constructive efforts must be made to reduce harmful emissions from our nation's electric utilities for the betterment of human health and the environment," Dingell, an author of the Clean Air Act wrote in his June 10 letter. "At the same time, we also must be mindful of the economic impact new regulations could have, especially with the complexity and breadth of applicability for this proposed rule being so significant."

The letter points out that EPA's analysis set the cost of the rule at $11 billion annually with retail electricity rates rising roughly 3.7 percent per year.

Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), who was hostile toward the EPA administrator throughout Wednesday's hearing, queried Jackson as to how she would handle Dingell's request.

"We will be responding shortly," Jackson answered, acknowledging that her agency received the letter. "We have made no determination."

Dingell was the longtime leader of the House Energy and Commerce Committee until California Rep. Henry Waxman beat him out for that position after President Obama was elected.

His letter emphasizes that extending the comment period won't violate the consent decree because the court allows EPA to go beyond the November deadline "by providing notice and reasons for a modification."

NRDC: 'Desperate Denial'

Sen. Ed Muskie is from Maine

"spirit of former Minnesota Democratic Sen. Ed Muskie", not Minnesota, Maine. 


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