Northeast battles its status as US 'tailpipe'

Concerned about mercury levels, states sue the EPA and consider creating tough new standards of their own.

A slew of Northeastern states, claiming that the Bush administration's new rules on mercury pollution do too little, too late, have initiated challenges demanding tougher restrictions.

Long considered one of the most contaminated regions, as pollutants travel "downwind" from the industrial Midwest and beyond and settle in New England, many of these states already have tough regulations in place but say much more needs to be done.

In the most recent move, New Jersey and eight other states - five of them in New England - filed a lawsuit Tuesday against the federal government, contending that the new rule fails to protect children and pregnant women from toxins released into the air.

The suit is the latest example of states joining forces to take on the Bush administration over standards that they claim favor business and undercut environmental protections.

In New Hampshire last week, a bill passed in the Senate that would reduce emissions from state plants more aggressively than the Environmental Protection Agency mandates - following similar moves in at least three other states, including Massachusetts and Connecticut. In Maine, politicians are harshly criticizing the rule and demanding more information; a coalition there has called for a congressional inquiry.

High regional standards

New England has traditionally charted its own course in environmental policies and has played a key role in implementing and demanding stricter regulations. "The region is unfortunate enough to be called the end of the tailpipe in the US," says John Walke, director of the clean air program at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "[Tuesday's] lawsuit is just a continuation of that leadership."

Mercury, released into the air as a byproduct of coal-fired power plants, is considered highly toxic. Nearly every state in the US has issued advisories warning of mercury levels in recreationally caught fish. Some scientists estimate that over 600,000 children are born each year with neurological problems because of mercury exposure.

The March 15 regulations - which aim to reduce current mercury emissions of 48 tons a year by 70 percent in the year 2018 - does not cut emissions across the board but gives companies the option of buying pollution credits from other plants that have not reached their maximum emission allotment.

In the lawsuit, attorneys general in New Jersey, California, Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Mexico, New York, and Vermont claim the EPA fails to fulfill its obligations under the Clean Air Act, in part because it exempts power plants from the strictest controls for emissions - allowing companies to participate in such cap and trade. Many environmentalists say the scheme could cause "hot spots" of mercury deposits, and claim the EPA has ignored technology that could reduce emissions by up to 90 percent.

Opponents refute the idea that such technology could currently be implemented and say a well-planned cap-and-trade program is the best way to reduce overall emissions, because the biggest polluters have the greatest financial incentive to sell credits. "They are the low hanging fruit," says Frank Maisano a spokesperson of the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, a coalition of coal-fired utility companies. He points to a program, based on the same model, that has successfully reduced the emissions that cause acid rain.

A spokesperson at the EPA wrote in a statement that the US is the first country to regulate mercury emissions from coal- fired power plants, and that even if all emissions were eliminated here, the problem would remain unsolved, since some 80 percent of the fish Americans consume comes from overseas.

Still, many expect the most recent lawsuit by nine attorneys general to be just the beginning of a flurry of litigation. "States are going to sue because there is a final rule that is woefully inadequate, that won't protect anyone or anything," says Brownie Carson, the executive director of the Natural Resources Council of Maine.

Tradition of environmental battles

New England is versed in such battles already. Mr. Walke says the region acted to tackle acid rain before the federal government did and has formed coalitions to address the spread of global warming.

That is fine, says Mr. Maisano, who notes that under the new rules states have the control to set their own restrictions on emissions or forbid companies to participate in the cap and trade program.

But others say that argument misses the point. In Massachusetts, which requires that emissions be reduced by 85 percent by 2008, up to 75 percent of the pollution comes from out-of-state, says Ed Coletta, a spokesperson at the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection. "We are doing our part," he says, but the state still isn't protected from the winds that carry airborne mercury from the West and elsewhere.

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