Senator urges mercury study

Alexander says federal standards may not be protective enough

Posted on November 23, 2006

Federal rules governing mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants may not be strong enough to protect Tennesseans, U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander said Wednesday in urging Gov. Phil Bredesen's administration to continue studying the issue. Air quality regulators in at least 22 states have concluded that the Bush administration's approach to cutting mercury pollution is too weak and are pursuing tougher measures on their own. Tennessee is not among them. The Tennessee Department of Environmental Conservation "has a tendency, and it is unfortunate, to rarely do anything more stringent than the federal government requires," said Steve Smith, executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. "In this situation, it is appropriate that Sen. Alexander is challenging Gov. Bredesen to do more," he said. Mercury is a neurotoxin that accumulates in fish and poses the greatest risk of nerve and brain damage to pregnant women, women of childbearing age and young children. Emissions of mercury total about 48 tons a year, most of it in the form of air pollution that winds up in waterways. Alexander, a Tennessee Republican with a home near the Great Smoky Mountains, is particularly concerned about mercury in the national park on the Tennessee-North Carolina border. "The Smokies are already heavily affected by other power plant emissions, such as sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides," Alexander, chairman of the Senate Science Subcommittee, wrote Bredesen. "If investigation shows that the Smokies are being harmed by mercury, then Tennessee may wish to adopt measures that go beyond the current federal mercury program for power plants, as some other states are doing," he suggested. "The bottom line is that the federal mercury rule may not be strong enough to protect Tennessee citizens." Alexander has co-sponsored a bill with Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., that would go "faster and farther" than Bush administration proposals. The bill would cut mercury emissions by 90 percent in 2015, compared to the administration's 70 percent reduction by 2018. TDEC Deputy Commissioner Paul Sloan has held one meeting so far with representatives from the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Park Service, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the Tennessee Valley Authority and other wildlife advocates to consider the issue. TDEC spokeswoman Dana Coleman described it as an informal working group that is still talking about "what we know about this issue in Tennessee" and "if we did some sort of study what would the parameters be." A second meeting has not been scheduled. Smith said the underlying issue is cost to electric utilities. Utilities could meet the Bush standard with emission equipment needed to cut nitrogen and sulfur. Tougher standards proposed by Alexander and many states would require additional equipment specifically for mercury. TVA, the nation's largest public utility, operates 11 coal-fired power plants. Seven are in Tennessee, two in Kentucky and two in Alabama. It has spent $4.4 billion since 1977 on pollution controls and plans to spend another $1.3 billion in the next few years. Tighter nitrogen and sulfur requirements proposed by the Bush administration could add another $3.5 billion. TVA-funded mercury studies in the Smokies have found low levels of mercury in the fish and stable trends during the past 20 years, TVA spokesman Gil Francis said.