WASHINGTON - The Environmental Protection Agency is backing away from imposing strict limits on mercury air pollution from power plants, proposing instead an emissions trading plan that would allow some plants to avoid limits, according to EPA staff and draft agency documents.
The proposal has infuriated environmental groups, which accuse the agency of sidestepping the Clean Air Act's requirement that companies install the strictest controls possible on mercury pollution. Many environmentalists charge that the Bush administration is acting as a favor to utilities and other industries that are political supporters of the White House.
But Jeff Holmstead, head of EPA's Office of Air and Radiation, denied the agency is weakening its rules, saying environmentalists are upset only because proposed rules will not be as stringent as they had hoped.
Some EPA staffers, joined by the co-chairman of the agency's advisory committee on mercury, have also complained that the agency did not conduct its usual scientific analysis of the impacts of the new proposal and so cannot guarantee that the rule change will not harm the environment. Holmstead denied that, saying the agency has done the analysis but has not distributed it widely.
The administration is required by court order to submit its regulation on mercury by Dec. 15, but a draft obtained by the Tribune illustrates the change in approach. The agency's proposal was disclosed on the same day that President Bush's new EPA director, former Utah Gov. Michael O. Leavitt, promised a new era of cooperation and balance in the environmental arena.
EPA's proposed rule would set a national target of reducing mercury emissions by power plants from about 48 tons a year currently to 34 tons by 2008. Staff members said it is likely this date will be pushed back.
A group of Northeastern state air pollution officials issued a report in November saying that technologies now available could reduce mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants nationwide by 90 percent, to about 5 tons a year.
"A 90 percent average reduction is clearly doable," said Ken Colburn, executive director of the Northeast States for Coordinated Air Use Management.
EPA air pollution rules generally require companies to install a "maximum achievable" pollution control technology. But EPA proposes to let plants that cannot meet tough emissions standards pay other companies to reduce their emissions further than required so the overall national goal is achieved.
EPA has implemented similar trading schemes for other pollutants, arguing that it allows the market to determine the cheapest way to achieve the desired emissions reductions.
Mercury, a byproduct of burning coal and other waste, can cause severe neurological damage in humans, particularly children and women of childbearing age. Power plants are the single largest source of man-made mercury emissions, according to EPA staff.