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In bid to cut mercury, US lets other toxins through

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 31, 2005

Perched along the James River fewer than 30 miles from Irving and Donna Wright's Virginia home, a coal-fired power plant sends up a plume of exhaust. When the wind blows their way, it deposits heavy metals and other toxins that the Wrights say may have harmed their son Joseph.

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So the couple was gratified when the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced last month the first federal crackdown on mercury emissions from power plants. But the Wrights' joy soured after they discovered the same ruling did nothing about lead, chromium, or arsenic. In fact, the new rule backs away from any possible new regulations on emissions of more than 60 heavy metals and toxins, say environmental experts. Overall, it's a step backward in cleaning up the air, they charge.

Such concerns have been nearly lost in the debate over the EPA's new Clean Air Mercury Rule. But they are quickly reaching the boiling point. A growing number of states say they will probably file suit in federal court in coming weeks to overturn the mercury rule - in no small measure because of its outsized impact on other pollutants.

"If the public impression is that this is just about mercury, that's wrong - it's about all the other hazardous air pollutants that power plants emit," says James Pew, a staff attorney with Earthjustice, a public-interest law firm in Oakland, Calif. "Power plants are big toxic emitters. And with this mercury rule, EPA is letting them completely off the hook."

At the heart of the debate over the new mercury rule is the rule's reversal of a 2000 EPA decision. Under the Clinton administration, the agency added electric utilities to a critical list of industries considered to be major sources of hazardous air pollutants such as lead and arsenic. The new mercury rule "de-lists" utilities. But in the eyes of many, that original listing still constitutes a legal requirement for power plants to eventually control these toxic emissions.

Not so, says the EPA. "What we concluded in the final mercury rule is that for the utility industry ... it was mercury that was the hazardous air pollutant with the greatest concern for public health," says spokeswoman Cynthia Bergman. In the preamble to the new mercury-rule proposal, the EPA concluded that nonmercury toxic emissions "posed no hazards to public health."

But that statement is based on findings of a 1998 EPA study that specifically requested further risk analysis for many nonmercury toxins, says Martha Keating, a senior scientist with the Clean Air Task Force, an environmental advocacy group. It's not clear how the EPA's new finding was reached since it has not conducted further detailed studies of lead, cadmium, arsenic, and other hazardous emissions, she says.

The nation's 400-plus coal-fired power plants emit more toxins into the air than any other single source, some 42 percent of the US total, according to the 2002 Toxic Release Inventory (TRI), the EPA's most recent comparative data. Unlike, say, greenhouse gases, which escape from smokestacks and float into the atmosphere, these toxins often settle on the surrounding land in any direction for 30 miles and more, deposition experts say. Half of all Americans live within 30 miles of a coal-burning power plant, a recent study based on US census data shows.

The sheer quantity of such toxic emissions is staggering. While much has been made of the 48 tons of mercury annually emitted by power plants, these same plants released in 2002 more than 361,000 tons of other toxins including vanadium, barium, zinc, nickel, hydrogen fluoride, hydrochloric acid, ammonia, and selenium, according to a recent report by the National Environmental Trust, an environmental advocacy group.

And many of these can be equally or almost as harmful as mercury, medical experts say.

Lead, for example, is considered a potent neurotoxin widely considered on par in its harmful effects with mercury. Power-plant emissions of lead nationwide were 132 tons in 2002 - about triple mercury's level, the report's TRI data show. About 153 tons of another nasty metal, chromium, and 62 tons of arsenic were also emitted.

"If the issue is fetal health, and the science is correct that lead and mercury produce similar results, why is the EPA saying it's important to control mercury, but not lead?" asks John Stanton, vice president of the National Environmental Trust and author of the report.

Donna Wright's son Joseph, who was diagnosed with a neurological disorder, has been undergoing medical treatment for heavy-metal poisoning, having tested very high for lead, chromium, arsenic, and nickel. Significant amounts of those toxins are emitted by the Chesterfield Power Station in nearby Chester, Va., although the company says that the quantities aren't as large as reported.