Could cuts in emissions come faster?
Deep in the Allegheny Mountains of West Virginia sits a giant coal-fired power plant aptly named Mount Storm - a 1,600-megawatt goliath that just a few years ago ranked second in the nation in toxic mercury emissions.Skip to next paragraph
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Today, however, the plant is turning over a new leaf. Since new pollution controls were bolted onto the plant, sulfur dioxide (SOX) and nitrogen oxides (NOX) are now scrubbed out of its smokestack emissions. The even better news is that a lot of mercury is being captured, too, scrubbed out at the same time at no extra cost, a company official says.
The plant's success casts an odd light on the nation's new Clean Air Mercury Rule, announced Tuesday. If existing technology can remove the lion's share of mercury emitted at a majority of today's power plants, why does the new law wait until 2018 to impose similarly stringent limits?
That's what environmentalists are asking. "The bottom line is that the technology is available today to eliminate the vast majority of the mercury mess," says Frank O'Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch, a Washington, D.C. watchdog. "Instead, EPA has given the power industry a decade-long pass."
Industry experts say the picture is not so simple.
"There's been a running argument about the status of technology for a couple of years now," says Larry Monroe, program manager for emissions-control research, at Southern Company in Atlanta, the nation's second largest public utility. "We have to be sure this equipment works 100 percent of the time. It has to be robust. A lot of people don't understand this stuff isn't ready for prime time."
For example: New technologies like activated carbon injection, which would absorb mercury from the emissions, are still in early stages of testing. And while NOX and SOX removal technologies are well-proven, Mr. Monroe says, their ability to remove mercury depends on coal type and power-plant configuration. For one thing, they don't remove mercury well from coal mined in the western half of the United States - although the mercury problem is most acute in the eastern US, where mostly bituminous coal is burned.
Nevertheless, where the NOX-SOX combination works, it often works well. Southern is in the process of adding two giant SOX scrubbers costing hundreds of millions of dollars to power plants that already have NOX controls. When he throws the switch on the new controls in 2007 and 2008, Monroe expects that together these systems will capture about 80 percent of the mercury, too.
The nation's coal-fired power plants currently emit about 48 tons of mercury a year. The toxin, along with mercury blown in from other countries, settles in rivers and lakes and enters the food chain, concentrating in fish. There are mercury fish advisories in 44 states, and the toxin has been found in women of child-bearing age.
The new mercury rule represents the first time the US has regulated mercury emissions from power plants.
"In so doing, we become the first nation in the world to address this remaining source of mercury pollution," Steve Johnson, acting administrator of the US Environmental Protection Agency, said in a statement announcing the new rule.