Quicksilver quagmire

Quicksilver quagmire

By Lisa Sorg

Pending mercury rules raise questions about CPS' proposed power plant

Talk about timing.

City Public Service has filed its construction application permit for a proposed and controversial $1 billion coal-fired power plant, but a confluence of three events could affect how San Antonio's public utility controls its mercury emissions on new and existing facilities:

Clear the Air released a new report showing additional health effects of mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants on humans.

Power plant impacts

Health Effect Cases per year

San Antonio
Death 100
Emergency Room Visits for Asthma 153
Heart Attacks 157
Chronic Bronchitis 144
Asthma Attacks 2815

Death 1160
Emergency Room Visits for Asthma 1798
Heart Attacks 1791
Chronic Bronchitis 942
Asthma Attacks 33987

Source: Abt Associates report "Power Plant Emissions: Particulate Matter-Related Health Damages and the Benefits of Alternative Emission Reduction Scenarios" and "Your Air on the Web" www.cleartheair.org/dirtypower

Journalist Bill Moyers outed Latham & Watkins, a Washington, D.C. law firm and utilities lobbyist, which apparently wrote some of the proposed federal mercury rules to favor utilities.

The Environmental Protection Agency received nearly 600,000 public comments about the rules, most of them critical of the proposed regulations for being too lax.

Mercury is a neuro-toxin, which can harm a developing fetus, cause learning delays in children, and affect heart rate and blood pressure in adults. According to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which is reviewing CPS' application for the new plant, the utility must address its potential mercury emissions for the first time.

TCEQ Chief Engineer David Schanbacher said CPS can apply to use Best Available Control Technology, also known as BACT, in its new plant. However, BACT standards are "not well-structured," Schanbacher said, adding they're "loosely defined as economic and technical reasonableness."

However, the TCEQ could require CPS to use Maximum Achievable Control Technology, also known as MACT. That standard is defined by analyzing mercury emissions data from the best-performing 12 percent of U.S. power plants. The average of those emissions would determine MACT. Yet, without federal mercury standards, few power plants are regulating their emissions.

The TCEQ has yet to determine which standard it will apply to CPS.

CPS has two coal-fired power plants, J.T. Deeley, which, according to EPA data, emits about 422 pounds of mercury annually into the air, and J.K. Spruce, which releases 72 pounds. Although the new plant should emit less mercury than its older counterparts, it still will add some mercury to the overall load.

Texas coal-fired power plants are responsible for emitting 8,556 pounds of mercury into the air each year.

CPS didn't return calls seeking comment by deadline.

The federal government has never regulated mercury emissions, but after being sued by the Natural Resources Defense Council, a Washington, D.C.-based environmental group, the Environmental Protection Agency issued proposed mercury rules last January.

A report, issued in June by Clear the Air, illustrates why stringent regulations on all power plant emissions are so important. According to analysis conducted by Abt Associates, the same firm that crunches numbers for the EPA, power plant emissions - ozone, sulfur dioxide, soot, and carbon dioxide from power plants - are responsible for 23,600 deaths and 38,000 heart attacks in the U.S. each year. `See box, this page.`

Despite extensive health data, the Bush administration is attempting to water down original clean air rules that govern mercury and other pollutants.

In 2000, then-Governor George W. Bush said he would work with Congress, the EPA and the Department of Energy, industry, consumer and environmental groups "to develop legislation that will establish mandatory reduction targets for emissions," including mercury. Yet, once in office, Bush proposed the Clear Skies plan which would allow power plants to pollute at current standards until 2018. Instead of reducing mercury emissions at all plants, a cap-and-trade system would allow heavy polluters to buy "credits" from lesser-polluting utilities, creating toxic hotspots.

Congress has balked at Clear Skies, prompting the Bush administration to try to jam its proposal through the EPA's rule-making process. At the EPA, the Bush administration has a friend in Jeff Holmstead, who until October 2001, worked at the firm of utilities lobbyist Latham & Watkins. As Bill Moyers reported on NOW in mid-June, language in the EPA's proposed rules was identical to comments submitted to the agency by Latham & Watkins.

"Jeffrey Holmstead should resign," said Karen Hadden, executive director of the Austin-based SEED Coalition, "This is unacceptable. The Bush administration plan didn't make it through Congress, so they tried to do legislative work through EPA rulemaking, which is illegal."

The first public comment period on the proposed CPS plant has ended. The TCEQ is weighing whether to grant a contested case hearing, which is similar to an administrative law hearing and more formal than a public hearing on the plant, but no decision has been announced.

To see the Clear the Air report and data on national, state, and local emissions, go to www.cleartheair.org. The EPA also has an emissions site: www.epa.gov/airmarkets. •

By Lisa Sorg

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