Monday, February 11, 2008

The EPA and Mercury Emissions

On Friday, a Federal Court of Appeals found that the Environmental Protection Agency “ignored laws and twisted logic when it imposed new standards that were favorable to plant owners” when establishing new regulations related to mercury emissions from power-plant smokestacks. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. District’s decision is a second blow to the current administration’s pollution policy after the being previously found deficient, by the United States Supreme Court, in its regulation of greenhouse gasses.

According to the Washington Post, the EPA’s regulations called for a “cap-and-trade program”. Power plants would be required to limit their mercury emissions to a set level starting in 2010; those that could not meet these standards were to have the ability to purchase so called “credits” from plants that were below the regulated level.

As expected, this proposed regulation caught the eye and ire of environmentalists. These environmentalists argued that the ability to purchase credits, thereby sidestepping the regulations, would lead to the creation of “hot spots” in certain neighborhoods. While some reduction may be observed in a sampling of neighborhoods, it is the environmentalists’ claims that several neighborhoods would experience a higher level of pollution caused by mercury output from the power plants than areas in which plants were able to lower their emissions to the EPA approved level.

According to the article, Virginia and Maryland, home to a majority of the area’s power plants, have limits on these plants more stringent than those set by the EPA. However, areas such as Washington, with wind patterns that could aid in the spreading of the mercury emissions, may be more susceptible to mercury pollution if the EPA’s new regulations are approved.

In their decision, the Court of Appeals stated that the EPA “’deploys the logic of the Queen of Hearts, substituting EPA's desires for the plain text’ of Congress's order”. Power companies claim that with such a ruling, the reduction of mercury pollution will actually be stalled, claiming that it is senseless to purchase the necessary equipment without knowing the acceptable levels of emissions that will finally be set.

It is hard to argue with the power companies’ stance that they will not purchase necessary equipment without knowing the final rules to be set by the EPA. Equipping the plant with the necessary parts will be a long and expensive task; having to do such a job potentially twice would at least double this time and expense. It can be argued that these plants should already be doing all they can to limit emissions, but as companies it is their goal to maximize profits while still staying within the scope of any applicable regulations.

Accordingly, it would seem that any blame should be placed on the EPA for attempting to sidestep an order from Congress. The fact that the current administration has already been rebuked by the United States Supreme Court for failing to control the emissions of greenhouse gasses and now is attempting to create exceptions to mercury emissions evidences the fact that the EPA currently is not adequately doing its job of protecting the environment. Had the EPA been concentrating on the protection of the environment, it is assumed that current mercury emissions levels would have already been properly set, instead of creating a “cap-and-trade” environmentally unfriendly program, and power plants would know the required standards needed to be met allowing them to upgrade as necessary to control these emissions.

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