The utility industry and environmental groups have clashed over the Environmental Protection Agency's plan to limit emissions of mercury, which contaminates water and fish and has been linked to neurological disorders in young children.
The new program aims to cut mercury emissions by 70 percent by 2018 through a cap-and-trade system. The EPA was required to issue the rules by Tuesday because of a court settlement with the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group which sued the EPA 13 years ago.
The nation's 1,100 coal-burning units now emit about 48 tons of mercury each year, the largest unregulated US source. The new rule sets the cap at 38 tons per year by 2010 and 15 tons per year in 2018.
However, actual emissions could remain much higher for many more years because of emissions credits that the EPA will let utilities "bank" from previous years when they reduce more than required, environmental groups said.
EPA officials said that while the new rule limits utility emissions, most mercury to which Americans are exposed comes from fish imported from other nations.
"The United States has taken the lead in convincing the rest of the world that the most effective way to reduction emissions is the way we have taken," EPA Assistant Administrator Jeff Holmstead said.
MERCURY "HOT SPOTS"?
Democrats and environmentalists say the program -- similar to one the EPA finalized last week for utility emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides in the eastern United States -- is not appropriate for a toxic substance like mercury.
Opponents wanted plant-specific caps and said the mercury rules give utilities a free pass because the targeted cuts will mostly come from last week's related rules on smog and soot.
"This is a do-nothing approach by the Bush administration," said John Walke of the Natural Resources Defense Council. The EPA had the power to order utilities to cut emissions by 90 percent by 2008 but took an industry-friendly tack, he said.
Other groups, such as the Association of Local Air Pollution Control Officials, criticized the program as weak and said it would be challenged in court.
"This rule inappropriately allows trading of mercury, which is a powerful neurotoxin," said Bill O'Sullivan, director of air quality at New Jersey's state environmental agency. The trading scheme may also "perpetuate mercury 'hot spots' - or pockets of high mercury levels," he said.
Utilities say the cap-and-trade system gives them flexibility to reduce emissions without spurring a switch to natural gas, which is cleaner but more expensive to burn than coal.
"If regulations force utilities to shift from coal to natural gas, the result is predictable," higher electricity prices, said Scott Segal, a lobbyist with the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, a group of utilities.
The Bush administration's path to finalize the rules was marked by controversy -- the EPA's inspector general and the Government Accountability Office both said that EPA's process may have put political motives ahead of scientific evidence.