Illinois power plants to cut toxic mercury

In a major victory for public health and the environment, Illinois completed the final step in adopting a rule to reduce coal-fired power plant mercury pollution by up to 90 percent by 2009. Under the rule, which took nearly a year to finalize, Illinois will require coal-fired power plants to operate state-of-the-art mercury reduction technology.

In the process of the mercury rule-making, Illinois EPA also secured significant commitments from the state’s three biggest electric generators—Ameren, Dynegy and Midwest Generation—to install pollution controls for nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide—air contaminants that cause serious damage to people’s respiratory and cardiovascular systems, especially in the highly polluted Chicago and East St. Louis areas.

“The governor and Illinois EPA made a promise last January to clean up mercury and create one of nation’s strongest rules for mercury emission reduction,” said Max Muller, environment advocate for Environment Illinois. “Today, they delivered on that promise and have made a solid first step toward making our air safe to breathe. We extend our thanks and congratulations to Gov. Blagojevich and Illinois EPA.”

Illinois’s 21 coal-fired power plants emit 71 percent of instate mercury pollution, a potent neurotoxin that can harm human cognition and fetal development. Available technologies—or optimizing pollution control equipment already in place—can capture 90 percent of mercury pollution before it leaves the smokestack. The new rule will require nearly every coal-fired power plant in Illinois to install and operate these technologies by 2009, and capture no less than 90 percent of mercury pollution by 2015.

Methylmercury can permanently damage the human heart, brain and immune system. When a pregnant mother eats contaminated fish, methylmercury crosses the placenta and can cause irreparable damage to the developing fetus’s central nervous system, resulting in developmental delays, motor, memory and attention problems, and decreased IQ. Nationally, U.S. EPA researchers estimate that up to one in six potential mothers—including more than 100,000 women in Illinois—has high enough blood-mercury levels to put a fetus at risk.

For years, however, power plant owners resisted investing in mercury control technology. This August, amid mounting public support for the mercury rule, Ameren and Dynegy power companies agreed to support the rule with the addition of a new, multi-pollutant provision. Under that alternative provision, utilities must install mercury controls on 96 percent of their generating capacity by 2009. In exchange for extra time at the remaining 4 percent, they also commit to significant investments to cut lung-harming sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide pollution, which are the major components of soot and smog.

“One by one, the companies admitted that it’s not that difficult to clean up mercury pollution,” said Rebecca Stanfield, director of Environment Illinois.

The only major coal-power generator left opposing the mercury rule was Midwest Generation, which owns seven plants in Illinois, including five in the Chicago metro area, and which is Illinois’ single-worst mercury polluter. Through a series of protracted negotiations this fall, and facing mounting public pressure to clean up its pollution, Midwest Generating finally agreed to install advanced mercury controls on all its plants by 2008 and 2009, as well as a suite of controls for sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides—both of which contribute to the smog and soot that have plagued the Chicagoland area.

Stanfield said: “The good news is that this rule cleans up mercury and is also the first enforceable agreement with firm deadlines for cleaning up soot and smog pollution at old, uncontrolled power plants. It ensures that they will either install modern pollution controls, or close. The bad news is that we think that soot and smog cleanup could and should come sooner. We hope to work with the agency and Midwest Generation to accelerate those timelines.”

Rulemaking on the Illinois Mercury Rule, proposed by Blagojevich in January, began in March when Illinois EPA submitted a draft rule to the Illinois Pollution Control Board (IPCB) for consideration. Based on public comment and experts’ sworn testimony, the IPCB voted unanimously Nov. 2 to adopt Illinois EPA’s proposal. The unanimous vote by the legislature’s 12-member Joint Committee on Administrative Rules (JCAR), a bipartisan oversight committee, confirmed that the rule will become law.

The Illinois Mercury Rule is Illinois’ response to a federal mercury rule being implemented, which is widely regarded as insufficient because of its long phase-in and high mercury emissions caps. The Congressional Research Service estimates the federal rule won’t meet its modest reduction targets until 2030, and even then, mercury pollution would be three times greater than under the Illinois plan, which would achieve nearly a 90 percent reduction by 2009.

“When the Bush administration failed to protect U.S. citizens from a known neurotoxin, Illinois rose to the occasion,” said Max Muller

Eating tainted fish is the dominant route of human exposure to mercury. When power plant mercury lands in waterways, bacteria convert it to methylmercury, a potent neurotoxin that accumulates in fish. In April, Environment Illinois issued a report finding that the average Illinois sport fish tested in 36 Illinois counties, 66 individual lakes and streams, and 16 fish species exceeded the U.S. EPA safe limit for a woman of average weight who eats fish twice per week. The Illinois Department of Health warns women and children to limit their consumption of fish from all Illinois waters.

From the Dec. 27, 2006-Jan. 2, 2007, issue

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