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In bid to cut mercury, US lets other toxins through

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There are other potential sources for the toxins. The couple has paid for a child's mattress without fire- retardant chemicals, done research into mercury contained in children's vaccines, and examined a range of household items for clues as to their son's problem. But Mrs. Wright keeps worrying about the power plant, too.

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"We do a lot of gardening," she says. "I can hundreds of quarts of vegetables every summer that I know are pesticide-free. But that particular power plant emits more toxins than any other in the state, so of course air quality is a concern because we also get a lot of rain here. Our concern now has become: 'How healthy is what we're putting up?' Maybe it would be better to go back to canned vegetables."

The Chesterfield plant's mercury emissions ranked 78th in the nation among power plants in 2002, TRI data show. But that pales in comparison with the plant's emissions of arsenic (No. 2 in the US), chromium (No. 2), and lead (No. 3). Chesterfield's emissions, along with those of a handful of other power plants, are a big reason Virginia ranks second in the US in lead emissions from coal-fired power plants, third in arsenic output, and first in chromium, the TRI data shows. (See map.)

A spokesman for the plant says those numbers grossly overstate the problem.

"We have resubmitted to EPA corrected information for the Chesterfield plant for 2002," says Dan Genest, a spokesman for Dominion Resources Inc., an electric utility with power plants in a number of states. According to him, combined arsenic, lead, and chromium emissions totaled about 5,600 pounds - a dramatic 88 percent reduction from the EPA figures.

Still, Virginia officials are concerned and combing through the fine print of the Clean Air Mercury Rule to see if it might help them clamp down on such toxins.

"Virginia has been working for the past several years to improve the reductions for other power-plant emissions - NOx and SO2 - the more well-known ones," says Bill Hayden, a spokesman for the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality. "We're looking more closely at mercury and hoping to make progress on other air toxics."

Fortunately, from the Wrights' perspective, Chesterfield was among the Virginia plants cited in a lawsuit by nearby states and the EPA that began during the Clinton administration. In a 2003 consent decree, Dominion agreed to put new pollution controls on it and other plants, which are being installed. Those controls, to reduce NOx and SO2, may reduce the other toxins, too.

"At the moment, the new mercury rule has no effect on us [for other toxins] because there are no regulations on those toxins," Mr. Genest says. "If EPA decides there should be some regulations, we will comply."

Ironically, the EPA last fall ordered other industries with coal-fired industrial boilers to install maximum control technology to remove mercury, lead, arsenic, and scores of toxic pollutants, environmental lawyers say.

That's an unfair comparison, says Ms. Bergman of the EPA. "The multipoint approach of our new Clean Air Interstate Rule, combined with cap-and-trade on mercury, is the best approach because it achieves reductions of multiple pollutants simultaneously."

That's not likely to mollify New Jersey and eight other states that filed suit Tuesday to overturn the new rule.

"New Jersey is unhappy with the EPA mercury rule and is taking a lead role in appealing that rule, not just because of mercury, but because it fails to add the other hazardous air pollutants," says William O'Sullivan of the state's environmental protection department. In a complaint filed with EPA last June, New Jersey and 10 other states cited the proposed rule's failure to regulate other air toxics along with mercury. The Clean Air Act does not authorize EPA "to pick and choose which hazardous air pollutants it will regulate," the complaint said.

The global reach of toxic metals

• Some 5,000 homeowners in Auckland, New Zealand, were warned in November their yards might be contaminated by lead, arsenic, and DDT from old horticultural sites that had used a range of pesticides.

• In China's Qinghai Province, official media highlighted earlier this year a chromium factory dumping huge amounts of toxins into rivers.

• India's domestic tanning industry alone is estimated to push some 2,000 to 3,200 tons of chromium annually into the environment, according to a scientific article last year.