The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed mercury standards for power plants are a major step in reversing the contamination of New York’s lakes, particularly in the Adirondacks.
In response to a court-ordered deadline, the EPA has proposed the first-ever national standards for mercury, arsenic and other toxic air pollution from power plants. The new standards would require many power plants to install state-of-the-art pollution control technologies to cut harmful emissions of mercury, arsenic, chromium, nickel and gases that cause acid rain and smog.
“After 20 years of uncertainty, the federal government will now have the authority to regulate these toxic chemicals that have had such a devastating impact on the Adirondacks, Catskills and other natural areas,” said Neil Woodworth, executive director of the Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK). “Because of the technology required to meet this standard, it will not only cut mercury contamination by 91 percent, it will also reduce fine particulate matter, low-level ozone and acidic precipitation.”
1,350 coal and oil-fired units at 525 power plants emitting mercury, arsenic, other toxic metals, acid gases, and organic air toxics including dioxin.
The proposed standard is the result of a 2008 U.S. Court of Appeals decision that threw out EPA’s Clean Air Mercury Rule (CAMR), a cap-and-trade program that allowed polluters to buy pollution credits and emit mercury without pollution controls. CAMR resulted in regional mercury “hot spots,” and recent studies have linked coal-fired power plants to mercury hot spots in the Adirondacks and Catskills. The appeals court ruled that CAMR conflicted with the clear language of the federal Clean Air Act, which requires each power plant to install the best pollution-control technology available to reduce mercury emissions.
The lawsuit was brought by a coalition of national health and environmental organizations. ADK was the only New York environmental group to participate in the lawsuit.
The Adirondacks and Catskills are downwind of numerous coal-burning power plants, whose mercury emissions contribute significantly to mercury pollution in these regions. A 2007 independent study by the Charles Driscoll and the Hubbard Brook Research Foundation estimated that mercury emissions from U.S. coal-fired power plants are responsible for 40 percent to 65 percent of mercury deposition in the Northeast.
Current levels of mercury deposition in the Northeast are four to six times higher than the levels recorded in 1900. Ninety-six percent of the lakes in the Adirondack region and 40 percent of the lakes in New Hampshire and Vermont exceed the recommended EPA action level for methyl mercury in fish.
Because of high mercury levels in fish from a number of reservoirs in the Catskills, state health officials have warned that infants, children under 15 and women of childbearing age should not eat any fish from these reservoirs. Mercury is also present in two-thirds of Adirondack loons at levels that negatively impact their reproductive capacity, posing a significant risk to their survival.
More information about the new APA mercury standard is available at: Reducing Toxic Air Emissions From Power Plants